Credibility

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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recently issued a draft of their updated clinical practice guidelines regarding medical nutrition therapy interventions for what they term “adult overweight and obesity treatment.” The very last point in their draft recommendations reads, “For adults with overweight or obesity, it is suggested that RDNs [registered dietitian nutritionists] or international equivalents not use a Health at Every Size® or Non-Diet approach to improve BMI [body mass index] and other cardiometabolic outcomes or quality of life.”

As you can imagine, the Health at Every Size (HAES) community is pushing back against the AND’s draft recommendations. The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) published an open letter to the AND as well as one to the HAES community outlining the ways in which the AND’s position is problematic.

(Before continuing, I want to highlight that the latter publication makes reference to white supremacy and how it factors into the picture, which I can imagine might trigger some head-scratching from those unfamiliar with the history of diet culture. If you want to learn more about this topic, consider checking out Fearing the Black Body – which, to be candid, I have not yet read myself, so I am calling attention to it based solely on its excellent reputation – or the first chapter of Anti-Diet.)

While I do not always agree with ASDAH and we do not speak for each other, I completely support the sentiments conveyed in their response letters. Similarly, I agree with Ragen Chastain’s response, which goes into more detail than ASDAH’s letters. Rather than reiterate their same points, I want to take a step back and look at one of the dynamics at play in this situation and in healthcare in general: credibility.

Back when I was in school for nutrition and looking ahead to my career, I wanted to become a universally respected expert, which is one of the reasons why I worked so hard in school. Then I began my dietetic internship and quickly began to sense that my expectations might be unrealistic. While all of my clinical preceptors placed a great deal of emphasis on note writing, or charting, each of them differed in how they wrote them, yet each felt strongly that their way was best and the others were wrong. One preceptor would praise me for utilizing a writing style for which another preceptor would chastise me. With my superiors giving me contradictory guidance, I felt confused and a bit paralyzed. There was no winning, no way in which I could make everybody happy, for what they each wanted from me was mutually exclusive.

Once I began practicing, the theme continued. Each time I changed how I practiced, some patients and colleagues applauded my shift while others thought I was making a mistake. Forget striving for universal respect, as there is no such thing. Credibility is subjective, and the truth is that every practitioner, no matter their approach, level of success, or reverence, is still seen by many as a quack.

This dynamic is not unique to dietetics; it shows up in other branches of healthcare as well. Reflecting upon issues I was having with my back in late 2013 and early 2014, I remember meeting with six surgeons – all of whom were highly regarded – and receiving five different opinions regarding what type of surgery I should have. One of them went so far as to say that if one of his interns had recommended the procedure that his colleague had suggested for me, he would have given the intern a failing mark.

Just as I had to weigh the pros and cons of the surgical options and choose the one I felt was the best for me, practitioners and patients also must decide which approach to healthcare is the one for them while understanding that large groups of people will always think their decision is wrong no matter what they choose.

When I first discovered HAES, I was skeptical since it contradicted much of what I had learned up to that point. Additionally, I did not want to believe it because it posed a threat to the weight-focused care I was providing at the time. On a deeper level, admitting HAES had validity also meant having to face the harm I had inadvertently done to my patients. Nobody who chooses a career in a helping profession wants to admit that they instead brought about hurt. Perhaps the folks at the AND – an organization that reinforces diet culture and weight stigma – are feeling similar resistance now, hence their criticism of HAES, or perhaps they are critical of HAES simply because it is not the approach that they choose to practice themselves.

Matching

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Figuring out what to eat can sometimes be a challenge. We stare at the contents of our open refrigerator, knowing we are hungry but unsure of what to choose, before we close the door only to immediately open it again and resume the search. We ask the waiter to come back in a few minutes and then return our attention to the menu. Our uncertainty can lead to frustration, confusion, and wasted time, but we have a remedy: matching.

Matching is an intuitive eating tool that can help us to make food selection decisions based upon our body’s internal cues. Diet culture tells us not to listen to our bodies, that its cues are untrustworthy and therefore to be ignored in favor of external systems, such as points systems or lists of foods to eat and those to avoid, in order to make choices.

However, our bodies are actually quite good at letting us know which food is going to hit the spot at any given time. As examples, consider how much better water tastes when we are thirsty compared to when we are already well hydrated, or how some people with anemia feel naturally attracted to high-iron foods. The latter might not know that beef has a high concentration of heme iron, but they do know that right about now, they could really go for a burger. Our bodies give us signals; we just have to be tuned in enough to notice what they are saying and trust them.

Following is an outline for how to put the matching process into practice.

  1. Before opening the refrigerator, pantry, or restaurant menu, ask yourself these questions to help guide your decision based upon your body’s intuitive eating cues.
    1. “What temperature food do I feel like having?” Example answers include hot, lukewarm, room temperature, cool, or frozen.
    2. “What texture food do I feel like having?” Example answers include crunchy, smooth, liquid, or a combination.
    3. “What color food do I feel like having?” Example answers include multicolored or monotone in a specific color.
    4. “What flavor food do I feel like having?” Example answers include sweet, salty, spicy, or bitter.
  2. With your answers in mind, survey your available food options to see which ones match – hence the term “matching” – your criteria.
  3. Imagine yourself eating each of the options you identified and choose the one you feel is most likely to hit the spot.
  4. Eat the food you selected, then ask yourself how the eating experience compared to your expectations. If your choice hit the spot as you anticipated, great! If not, no worries, just consider it data for the future.

You probably will not be able to answer all of the questions regarding temperature, color, texture, and flavor, but being able to answer even one can be enough to point you in a direction. Also, these are not leading questions, and you are not trying to talk yourself into wanting – or not wanting – a particular food.

Lastly, keep in mind that the matching process is a tool, not a rule that can be violated. For example, if you go through the process and determine that you want crackers and cheese, but then you remember that you have yogurt that is about to expire and you opt to use it up instead, you are not doing anything wrong, nor are you bad at intuitive eating. We all live in the real world where a multitude of factors influence our eating, and it would be unrealistic to expect someone to always base their eating decisions solely on matching. Use this tool to the extent that you want to and find it helpful.

“As long as you’re healthy . . .”

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“Health.” It’s a simple one-syllable word with a deceptively simple definition: “the state of being free from illness or injury.” What I have come to realize over the decade-plus that I have been practicing nutrition therapy as a registered dietitian is that health means many different things to different people. Health is not black or white, but a million shades of gray. But the wellness industry (diet culture’s shapeshifted cousin) would have us believe that health is not only easy to define and simple to identify, but also easy to achieve, if we just try hard enough. Well, sorry, it’s not that simple.

When I was a preteen, I remember feeling like my body was wrong, too big, taking up too much space. My mother and I would go to my pediatrician appointments, where my doctor would hem and haw about my weight. I had always trended on the 95th percentile on growth charts, and every year my pediatrician would comment on it in a concerned way. My mom would echo these concerns at home, gently reminding me that my doctor was worried for my health. When I would cry to my mom about being in a larger body than my peers, she would always come back to this statement: “You are a beautiful girl. We could make some changes to how you eat and exercise. I just want you to be healthy.”

“I just want you to be healthy.” These words ring in my ears as they have been spoken to me in different iterations throughout my life. From concerned college friends after I had gained a significant amount of weight during my freshman year (post diet, of course): “We are just worried about your health.” From my first adult PCP when I was 22 years old: “We just want to make sure you are healthy.” From my mom when I announced that I would be going on a low-carb diet at age 25: “as long as you’re healthy!”

Everyone seemed to say that my health was the most important thing and that being healthy meant being in a “healthy-looking” body. When I actively engaged in dieting, restricting, tracking every morsel, weighing myself multiple times a day, exercising even when I didn’t feel like it or was sick or injured, eschewing lunch outings with friends, losing my period – during these times, everyone marveled at how “healthy” I was. “It’s so nice to see that you are finally taking care of yourself!” my family would crow. “Keep going, get healthy!” my doctor cheered. Little did they know the personal hell I was living in. But at least I “looked” healthy. Or at least my body fit the social norm for what we collectively believe is healthy, i.e., it was no longer considered fat. But inevitably as the weight would come back on, the concerns for my health would resurface.

When I finally gave up on dieting and learned about Health at Every Size® and intuitive eating, I was ready to hear the message. At last, I didn’t need to micromanage my intake and output. I didn’t need to obsessively count and weigh and measure. I didn’t have to give lunch outings with friends a second thought. It was like a freedom I hadn’t felt since I was a child, before I was told that I had a body that was “wrong.” I began to realize that health is not one-size-fits-all and that it looks different for different people. With individuals who have chronic illnesses such as celiac disease or cystic fibrosis or those with physical disabilities such as paralysis or amputation, they would never be able to achieve a state of being “free from illness or injury.” How about the millions of people who deal with depression or anxiety? Are they unable to achieve health as well?

I feel that we need to change our beliefs and expectations around health. In my opinion, health is a multifaceted amorphous concept that is not always attainable. It is also something that changes during our lifespan for a multitude of reasons. Even if we engage in all of the “health-promoting behaviors” we have been told to do, there is no guarantee that we will be healthy. In addition, there is no moral requirement for us to engage in these behaviors. As the wise Ragen Chastain so eloquently states: “Health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, completely within our control, or guaranteed.”

The wellness industry loves to prey on our fears of illness and death. It purports to give us the answers to living longer, healthier lives. All we need to do is buy their program, supplement, or detox, and we can unlock the secret to immortality. It’s a brilliant marketing scheme that swindles millions upon millions of people every year. What if we decided to care more about our mental health and wellbeing? What if we made healthcare accessible to everyone? What if we eradicated weight stigma from the medical field? What if we decided that health doesn’t look the same on every body and that this is okay? My guess is the wellness industry would lose billions of dollars. Worrying about and obsessing over our “health” is most definitely not good for us. I wonder when our society will figure this out.

“You have permission to not eat.”

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Some of my patients who are relearning how to eat intuitively find it helpful to utilize a mantra, a phrase they can say to themselves to help them through a challenging situation. Because we often discuss the concept of unconditional permission, “You have permission to eat” is a refrain that my patients commonly use. One of my patients though flipped it on its head and began to use “You have permission to not eat.” At first, I was a bit perplexed, but the more I listened to her and reflected on these words, the more I realized their power.

Having the freedom to allow ourselves to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, and however much we want – otherwise known as unconditional permission – is central to intuitive eating. Without this foundation, everything else we study can easily warp into dieting tools. Given that, I initially bristled at “You have permission to not eat” because I thought it might be a veiled attempt at restriction, but that is not the case at all. Rather, the power in these words comes from acknowledging the times when we feel obligated to eat even when our bodies are saying no and freeing ourselves from the burden of feeling powerless.

As a first example, consider the scenario that my patient told me about when she was explaining the power of her mantra. She was at dinner with her extended family, and all of the latter were leaning towards ordering dessert. While my patient did not feel like having dessert, she also felt a social obligation to order it since others were. Then she reminded herself, “You have permission to not eat,” which reaffirmed that whether or not to order dessert was her prerogative, and she could act in her own best interests regardless of how the rest of her family went about their eating.

Thinking about other possible applications, I realized how helpful this mantra can be for people who feel pressure to not “waste” food. We are familiar with guilt-inducing refrains to clean our plate, such as “There are starving children in the world,” as if whether or not we finish the food in front of us has any impact whatsoever on the global politics of food insecurity. In these moments, “You have permission to not eat” reminds us that we do not have to be human garbage disposals for the sake of some theoretical benefit to others.

My thoughts then went to how this phrase could be useful for people working through compulsive overeating. Recovery is, of course, more complex than simply reciting a mantra, but just as the concept of unconditional permission is essential for diet survivors who are building healthy relationships with food, “You have permission to not eat” reminds compulsive overeaters that they have the freedom to move away from the urges to overconsume that have felt so irresistible.

Lastly, I considered how “You have permission to not eat” can aid those who overconsume due to habit or tradition. Maybe we eat to the point of physical discomfort every Thanksgiving because we have come to accept that this is the norm on the holiday, or maybe we buy popcorn every time we go to the theater regardless of whether or not we are hungry or feel like popcorn just because eating the snack feels like an intertwined and essential component of movie watching. “You have permission to not eat” reminds us that even if we have long engaged in certain eating behaviors, we have the freedom to move away from them if we feel that they no longer serve us.

You may discover other applications in which “You have permission to not eat” is a helpful mantra, but guard against the temptation to use it as a tool to restrict because that would likely backfire and be counterproductive. If you feel yourself tempted to go down that road, remind yourself of the phrase from which this mantra came: “You have permission to eat.”

An Open Letter to Daycares, Preschools, Nursery Schools, and Elementary Schools

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We so appreciate the care you take of our little ones. In fact, I am sure that most parents would agree being able to send our kiddos to daycare, preschool, and/or elementary school is a huge factor in maintaining our sanity. The way that you help our children learn, grow, and adapt is amazing, and we are grateful for you. Having said all this, we need to talk about the policing of our kids’ food in school.

Lately, I have begun hearing more and more from parents whose kids are being sent back home with notes about their packed lunch. One parent received a phone call from a daycare saying that they were not going to give her daughter the 10 M&Ms that she had packed in her daughter’s lunchbox because they were “unhealthy.” Keep in mind, this mom had the forethought to pack in her daughter’s lunch The Feeding Doctor’s lunch box card stating that she did not want the staff to interfere with her daughter’s eating of lunch and that her daughter is allowed to eat any or all (or none) of the foods packed in the lunch in any order she wants. The staff overruled these directions and said that candy is “frowned upon” in their program.

Listen, I get it. In our fatphobic, diet culture world, we’ve been taught that sugar is the enemy. That if we give it to our kids, they will turn into sweets-addicted, hyperactive lunatics who will be out of control, that their bodies will balloon up like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and that their teeth will fall out due to cavities. As a registered dietitian who has a Master of Science in Nutrition and Health Promotion with over a decade of experience in the dietetic field, I’m here to tell you that all of this is false.

Kids are naturally born intuitive eaters. Newborn babies cry when they are hungry and drink breastmilk (or formula) provided by their caregivers until they are satiated. They are perfectly in tune with their bodies’ cues and eat in response to them.  As babies grow and they start eating solids, they continue to eat intuitively. If you’ve ever tried to get a baby to eat anything they don’t want to eat (I’m looking at you, strained peas.), you know they just won’t have it. As kids reach toddlerhood, often their eating habits become erratic. Some days, it seems like my daughter barely eats anything, but on other days, she appears to eat more than a grown adult. Despite this seeming chaos, our kids’ bodies know what they are doing. While meals might seem hit-or-miss during one day, it’s best to look at our kids’ eating over a period of days as things will usually average out.   

Kids usually remain intuitive eaters until the adults in their lives start interfering with their food. Whether it be pressuring kids to take “one more bite” at dinner even if they are no longer hungry, limiting their access to sweets and other highly palatable foods because they are “unhealthy”, or expressing concern about their eating “too much,” parents and other adults can really throw a monkey wrench into their kids’ relationship with food.  Many parents worry about their kids gravitating towards foods that are high in fat, sugar, and/or salt because they themselves have a complicated relationship with those foods. In reality, if we relax around these foods and include them regularly with more “nutrient-dense” foods, we can neutralize them and take the “shine” off of them as well. In my work with kids and families, it’s the kids who are the most restricted around highly palatable foods that end up bingeing on them when they get the chance, sneak eating them in their room, or being hyperfixated on them at their friends’ houses. If we teach our kids that food has no moral value (i.e., eating vegetables doesn’t make you a “good” person and cookies aren’t the devil’s food), they will be able to make choices about what and how much to eat based on their internal hunger and fullness cues.

In addition to being natural-born intuitive eaters, young kids have very binary thinking. That is, when we present them with the idea that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods, they take this information quite literally and are unable to see the gray. So many children feel guilt or shame for enjoying “bad” foods because they feel like they are bad for eating them. This is setting our kids up to have a very charged emotional experience around these foods which can continue on into adulthood for many of them.  If we teach kids that all foods fit and that the most important thing is getting a good variety of all sorts of foods, we can help foster their relationship with food and their bodies.

Another thing to consider is the concept of helping our kids become “competent eaters.” Coined by child feeding therapist and dietitian Ellyn Satter, competent eaters are those who eat in accordance with their hunger and fullness cues while taking into consideration their bodies’ needs and preferences. Parents’ (and caregivers’) role in this process is to be in charge of certain aspects of meals and snacks. Satter’s Division of Responsibility further clarifies that parents are in charge of what food is being served, when and where this food is offered. Meanwhile, kids are responsible for whether they choose to eat the food provided and how much they want to eat of said food. Ideally, parents offer their kids a variety of foods, including both highly palatable foods and foods that are more nutrient dense, and then let their kids eat in accordance with their bodies. This model posits that interfering with kids’ eating by cajoling them to eat more vegetables, discouraging them from eating other foods, or even praising them for eating more nutrient-dense foods will lead to power struggles at the dinner table.

So what can we adults do to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies? Here are some strategies:

  1. Avoid categorizing some foods as “junk” or “bad” and others as “good” or “healthy.” Food is just food and does not have moral value. Food is only “bad” if you are allergic to it or it is rotten or spoiled.
  2. Parents need to provide a wide variety of foods to their kids, including regular access to highly palatable foods in order to take these foods off the pedestal and make them morally equivalent to more nutrient-dense foods.
  3. Caregivers at school should refrain from pressuring kids to eat certain parts of their lunch before letting them eat other parts (e.g., “You need to finish your sandwich before you can have your cookies.”) If a child wants to eat their cookies first, please let them.
  4. Caregivers at school should also avoid confiscating food from kids’ lunchboxes unless those foods are an allergy or choking risk. If the parents packed the lunch, please respect that they know how to feed their kids.  
  5. Finally, school caregivers, please be mindful about sharing your own food anxiety with kids. Kids should not be hearing about your latest diet or how you don’t allow yourself to eat X, Y, or Z. Children are like sponges and absorb all of this information.

Again, thank you for everything you do for our little ones. We are so grateful to have you in our kids’ lives. Let’s help our children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies by setting a good example and not letting diet culture into the classroom.  

Randomly Targeted

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One of the best books that I have read for professional purposes is Aubrey Gordon’s “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat.” Although I have listened to countless patients detail what it is like to have a large body in our fatphobic society, Aubrey’s book helped me to grasp more deeply the contrast between weight stigma and thin privilege.

Some of Aubrey’s stories are wild enough to strain credulity, such as a stranger approaching her in a grocery store and taking food out of her shopping cart without permission due to supposed concern for the author’s health, yet I believe her. A couple of years ago, a Black friend of mine explained to me that Blacks have been complaining about police brutality for decades, but it took the widespread prevalence of cellphone cameras and their resulting videos to convince white folks that the problem is real. His words hit me hard, I learned from them, and I do not need to see video of someone stealing fruit from Aubrey’s cart to believe that this happened to her.

The crux of the book’s fourth chapter, “On Concern and Choice,” is that some people express concern about someone’s weight for supposed health reasons, in part because they believe body size to be a choice – which, for the most part, it is not – something that one can manipulate if convinced that their current size is a problem. Furthermore, their expressed concern is really not about the person to whom they are talking, but rather an indication of the fears they have about their own bodies. In other words, if we acknowledge that body size is largely out of our control, then we also have to face the reality that our own bodies might change in ways that we do not want them to despite our best efforts to keep them the same. That prospect scares the crap out of many people, who find it easier to pretend we have more control than we really do.

This chapter resonated because it hearkened back to the allegations people have directed at me upon learning that I used to have a spinal tumor. Surely you have a family history of such issues, they insist. No. You grew up under high-voltage transmission lines. Wrong again. You overdid it in the weight room. Eye roll. The list goes on. As each assertion is met with a negative response, the concern on their face grows. It took me a long time to figure out what that expression is about, but now I understand that when the ideas that the tumor’s cause was my own doing or something unique to my circumstances are struck down, people then realize that the condition can develop in anyone’s body – most notably their own.

Humans, we are a funny bunch. Our antennae go up a bit higher when we feel like something might affect us rather than just other people, do they not? Think about horrible stories we read about violent home invasions in our community. While the crimes and our thoughts for the victims may be similar either way, contrast how you feel when an article concludes, “The police say the parties were known to each other,” versus, “The police believe the victims were randomly targeted.”

Outer Limits

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A little over six years ago, I wrote a blog entry in which I attempted to rebut the notion that discussing topics other than food in our sessions somehow qualifies as psychology. In reference to intuitive eating, I wrote, “What does it say about how disconnected our culture teaches us to be from our internal signals regarding eating that an approach that encourages us to pay attention to said signals triggers connotations of therapy?”

After reading the blog, a friend of mine – a clinical psychologist himself – offered something along the lines of, “Maybe the reason your work is effective is because you include some psychology.” No, I bristled. Staying within my scope of practice is important to me, and certainly anything that qualifies as psychology is beyond what a dietitian can offer, I reasoned.

Given that, I have occasionally second-guessed myself when conversations with patients have strayed into more distant orbits around food. On one hand, I have tended to listen to my instinct to prioritize what my patients want to discuss and to follow the natural flow of conversation so long as what we are talking about ultimately relates to their eating. On the other hand, when conversations become less about nutrition and more about things like body image, weight stigma, or even happenings in someone’s life that are tangential to their eating, I have worried that perhaps I have inadvertently crossed the line from where a dietitian’s work ends and that of a therapist begins.

Then along came a session at the 2021 Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) conference that alleviated my worry and helped me to see the matter in a different light. In their talk, entitled “Staying in Your Lane – Until You Can’t: Balancing Scope of Practice and Competent Client Care,” Anna Lutz and Sandra Wartski, a dietitian and psychologist, respectively, delved into the issue of professional bounds.

One of the most validating concepts that I took away from their talk is that there is no crisp line separating the work of the two professions, but rather there is an overlap, a gradient that bleeds from one realm of expertise into the other. In other words, some topics, such as weight stigma, are appropriate for discussion with both a dietitian and therapist, and each practitioner can bring different perspectives that hopefully complement one another.

Furthermore, scope of practice is amorphous, fluid, and depends on context, such as an individual patient’s needs at a specific moment in time and the practitioner’s own comfort level. Sometimes a patient is unable to address the work at hand, and simply having a human connection is more constructive. Anna gave an example of a time when a patient was too preoccupied with other matters to discuss food, something I have experienced with patients of mine on occasion, so they spent the entirety of their appointment talking without ever discussing the patient’s eating.

Having said all that, scopes of practice can only stretch so far. If a patient raises an issue that is beyond my ability to expertly handle, such as a disclosure of trauma that they are hoping we can process together, I am responsible for making my limitations known. Similarly, a good therapist knows better than to delve into the specifics of nutrition. Part of the reason why collaboration between treatment team members is so important is because we can let each other know when something comes up that is better handled by the other practitioner.

For me, their talk validated my intuition and reassured me that the way I approach my work is well within my professional bounds. For our patients who are reading this, I hope hearing about their session resolves any lingering questions you may carry about possibly having overshared and similarly serves as encouragement to remain open going forward.

 

Reentry

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It’s hard to believe that we have been living in this pandemic for over a year. In some ways, it feels like the year flew by, but in other ways, it feels like 10 years have passed. Jonah and I have been lucky that we have been able to continue seeing patients remotely during this time. And we are fortunate that no one in our immediate family has gotten COVID. We’ve spent the past year plus ordering our groceries online to avoid going to the store, drastically cutting back on getting together with friends, and playing little to no tennis (only outdoors). Our daughter, who is nearly three years old, has not had that much disruption in her life, unlike school-age kiddos. While we had planned to put her into a nursery school in March of last year, we decided to hold off until we felt it was safe. Our tentative plans are to send her to preschool in the fall. Aside from having to wear masks outside, she has been blissfully ignorant of the pandemic.

Jonah and I were also lucky in the fact that we were able to get our COVID vaccinations back in February because we are healthcare providers. This has been a huge relief, although it hasn’t changed our behavior that much. We still get most of our groceries delivered, aren’t eating indoors at any restaurants, and are limiting our socializing to outdoors. But we know that as the summer approaches, things will likely start to loosen up. More and more people will become vaccinated, outdoor activities will be more prevalent, and we will have more opportunities to socialize with friends and family.

While part of me is excited to start getting back to “normal,” I also have some anxiety about it. Like many people, I know that my body has changed over the past year. My pants are fitting a bit snugger, and my body just feels different. I’ve had to buy some new clothes to accommodate the changes, which has felt hard. And sometimes I feel my internalized fatphobia bubble to the surface. I worry what people will think of me when they see my larger body. I worry that others will judge me for weight gain over the past year. I worry that I won’t be good at playing tennis anymore. I worry that this body won’t be able to do the things it was able to do previously. I worry that I won’t be able to fit into different spaces.

I know that I am not alone in this anxiety around resurfacing post pandemic. Many of my patients have experienced changes in their bodies over the past year. We have all gotten used to seeing our friends, family, and co-workers via computer, with our views limited to the shoulders and up. It’s been a while since we have been fully visible to people other than family. In some ways, it has been nice not to worry about how our body might look to others. I know that I have seriously gotten used to wearing leggings and sweatpants to work every day, and it will be difficult to go back to office attire once we start seeing patients in person again! Telehealth has also made it easier for me to really focus on my patients, rather than being distracted by my own body.

One thing that I also have had to remind myself about is stress and its effects on weight. Our bodies are unbelievably smart, and when they are under stress (whether being chased by a sabretooth tiger or, you know, dealing with the uncertainty and fear of a pandemic), certain chemical processes are put in motion. One of these chemical processes is an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol kicks off a release of glucose (our bodies’ primary source of energy) into the bloodstream in order to provide us more energy as part of the “fight or flight” response to dangerous situations. Increased levels of cortisol also cause an uptick in insulin levels, which results in our blood sugar dropping. As a result of this drop, we tend to find ourselves gravitating towards more energy-dense foods (i.e., foods high in carbohydrates and fat). This process also slows down our metabolism and increases our propensity to store fat in preparation for the next threat. All of these mechanisms have been in place in the human body since the beginning of time as a way of helping us survive. So it should be no surprise that many people have experienced weight gain over the past year as a result of living through an unprecedented pandemic. It’s our bodies’ way of trying to survive.

When I find myself perseverating on my body changing, I try to remind myself to breathe. Bodies change. That is what they do. Our bodies will change throughout our lifespan. It doesn’t need to signify something negative. My body has gotten me through this past year – it has survived a freakin’ pandemic! That, in and of itself, is an amazing feat. My body changed for myriad reasons, many of which I don’t know. Maybe it was ordering more takeout, playing less tennis, not leaving the house as much, feeling more stressed and anxious, or maybe it is just plain old middle age. In the end, it doesn’t matter. There doesn’t need to be a reason for my body changing, and there really isn’t anything I can (or should) do about it. I will continue to take care of myself and my body the best ways I know how, to give myself some compassion around reentering the world and remember that this amazing body has gotten me this far. I hope that your reentries go well too.

Here Comes Mr. Greedy

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When I ask my patients to look into their pasts and tell me about the origins of their weight stigma, they can sometimes trace back and point to influential entities, such as a parent, teacher, doctor, or coach. In relatively rare cases, they can recall specific interactions, such as Joanne’s doctor telling her to “get skinny,” or my neurologist cautioning me that if I ever thought about “slacking off” in my exercise routine, I should remember the conversation we were having right then.

Most typically though, patients cannot point to anything. They look at me befuddled, as if I asked a Red Sox fan how they came to know that the Yankees suck. Like, aren’t Bostonians just born knowing that? No, they are not; nor are we born prejudiced against fat people. Both mindsets are learned.

Just as dislike of the Red Sox’s longtime rival is ubiquitous throughout the metropolitan area, so is weight stigma in our culture at large. We develop sports team allegiances from a young age via various sources – jerseys in elementary school, endorsements, televised games, familial preferences passed down – and the biases that we hold against people of higher weights were shaped from so many sources that no singular one tends to stand out in our memories.

And these sources get to us when we are young. Our daughter loves books and has an extensive library of reading material geared towards toddlers her age. In a boxed set of children’s books from the late Roger Hargreaves, Joanne intercepted one entitled Here Comes Mr. Greedy, which shows a cartoon of a fat man on the cover. Subsequent pages describe this rotund individual as “the greediest person I’ve ever met,” that he constantly thinks about food, and he is so “greedy” that he throws a birthday party for himself every week so he can regularly have his favorite food: birthday cake.

This is just one book that Mr. Hargreaves wrote that features his Mr. Greedy character. Another one reads in part, “In fact, Mr. Greedy loved to eat, and the more he ate, the fatter he became. And the trouble was, the fatter he became the more hungry he became. And the more hungry he became the more he ate. And the more he ate the fatter he became. And so it went on.”

Nothing against Mr. Hargreaves, who seemingly dedicated his professional life to creating content for children. Like most of us, he was an apparent victim of a fatphobic culture. Mr. Hargreaves presumably absorbed erroneous stereotypes about eating behavior and body size and repackaged them for preschoolers, thereby perpetuating the generational cycle of fat hate.

Sparing our offspring from weight stigma is certainly an uphill battle, but parents have the ability to take mitigating actions.

For starters, parents can minimize exposure. Just as Joanne spotted Mr. Greedy in our daughter’s new book collection and removed it, we can be vigilant in other ways. Change the channel when ads for weight loss programs and products come on, set appropriate boundaries with those who talk about their diets on family Zoom calls, and find a pediatrician who provides weight-neutral healthcare.

When children inevitably encounter weight stigma, address it head-on and help them process it. Teach them that bias against body size is as erroneous and problematic as any of the other stereotypes and prejudices that infect our world.

Most importantly, even though what happens out of the house is largely out of our control, make sure to keep a body positive environment at home. Avoid leaving problematic magazines on the coffee table (or better yet, do not keep them in the house at all), get rid of the scale, do not go on diets (or embark on “lifestyle changes” that are diets in disguise), and refrain from offering disparaging comments regarding anyone’s bodies, including our own.

The “T” Word

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“You run into that more than I do. All of my patients are already in therapy.”

That is how Joanne responded when I suggested that she write a feature about the challenge of helping resistant patients in need of therapy to agree to go. Apparently, the responsibility of writing about the topic then falls on me, and appropriately so, I suppose, for I do run into this issue quite often on my side of our practice.

Joanne rarely runs into this dilemma because she focuses exclusively on eating disorders, and by the time a patient makes their way to her, the importance of a complete treatment team – a dietitian, a physician, and yes, a therapist – has usually been explained and emphasized to them at some point already.

In contrast, while eating disorders are similarly my area of specialization, I also help people with other conditions, such as high cholesterol and hypertension. As such, I tend to attract patients who view – or want to view – their challenges as superficial food issues even if it quickly becomes apparent to me that something deeper is at play.

That brings us to a critical juncture in our work and often a difficult conversation. How do we emphasize the importance of therapy while remaining sensitive to the reality that we live in a society that stigmatizes mental health issues?

Well, we do just that. We talk about the upsides of therapy as well as the patient’s thoughts, questions, and concerns, including any hesitations they might have. Oftentimes we also talk about the stigma because I think it is important to bring out into the open the reality that a therapy referral comes with a connotation that would not arise if I were suggesting someone meet with pretty much any other kind of specialist.

Sometimes patients are hesitant to disclose their true reasons for not wanting to go to therapy, or maybe they have trouble putting their fingers on what their reasons are, but they know they do not want to go. “It is not worth the time,” “I do not hate myself,” and “I have friends I can talk to” are some of the superficial reasons patients have told me. Time, trust, and continued conversation are sometimes necessary for us to get to the point of having a candid discussion about whatever their hesitations really are.

A common sentiment I hear is, “I think I want to start with just a dietitian.” Earlier in my career, I had a peer supervision leader who refused to work with a patient with an eating disorder unless they were also in therapy, a policy that I then adopted. Eating disorders are mental health issues that play out through eating behaviors, so while they affect nutrition, they are not directly nutrition issues. The dietitian’s roles are to provide nutrition support (if applicable) and to help the patient form a new and healthier relationship with food as the disorder recedes. However, because eating disorders are mental health issues, the bulk of the recovery does not happen with a dietitian, but rather with a therapist. Without this key member of the treatment team, the patient’s chances of recovery drop so dramatically that some dietitians, including my peer supervision leader, feel it is unethical to work with someone who refuses therapy.

In the last few years, as a result of conversations I have had with other colleagues, I have reversed course. The rationale is that if I terminate my work with a patient who refuses therapy, then they are left with nobody to help them, but if I continue working with them, then at least they have me in the meantime, and, hopefully, they will become more open to the idea of therapy as time goes on.

As dietitians continue to debate this issue, my own ambivalence oscillates from one side to the other and back again, and I have no idea what my policies will be in this regard down the road. What I do know, and what dietitians who specialize in treating eating disorders agree on, is that therapy is essential for recovery.

Therapy can also be immensely helpful for some patients without eating disorders, too. One of the most interesting aspects of nutrition work – but also one of its greatest challenges – is the wide array of factors that influence the decisions we make regarding what, when, and how much to eat. Many examples, such as low self-esteem or a poor relationship with a close family member, can significantly affect eating behaviors, yet are largely beyond my expertise to treat alone. The boundary of my scope of practice bleeds into that of mental health professionals, who can effectively address these deeper issues and free people up to form healthier relationships with food.