So, what exactly do future dietitians learn in nutrition school?

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Our switch from holding in-person appointments to telehealth has yielded many benefits, one of which is that now nobody can see the various diplomas and certificates that are mounted on my office wall. Having these documents on display makes me somewhat uncomfortable, as it feels a bit like bragging, which is why I only put them up after some patients suggested I should. Looking at them recently, I began to wonder what these framed pieces of paper mean to the people who wanted to see them. In essence, they are just souvenirs from my education, so perhaps interest in them is really just indirect curiosity about my training. So, what exactly do future dietitians learn in nutrition school? The specifics depend on where and when they study, but if my experience is any indication, it probably looks something like this.

The Basics

As an undergrad at Tufts University double majoring in mathematics and English, I had little room in my coursework for science classes. Given that, before I could begin to directly study nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), the department required that I take some prerequisites. Therefore, my nutrition schooling started from the very beginning with the most basic biology, chemistry, and physiology courses.

Of these three disciplines, the greatest focus was on chemistry. We had two semesters of general chemistry followed by two semesters of organic chemistry and one biochemistry course, all of which had lab components. When I last studied chemistry in high school, I found it difficult to understand and I consequently struggled. With that being my history, the prospect of having to take these relatively advanced chemistry courses was so intimidating that I nearly backed out of the program on the eve of my first day of classes because I was doubtful that I could succeed. Instead, I plunged myself into the subject. Motivated by intense fear and intimidation, I did everything I could to survive. No matter how well I did, I figured failure was just around the corner, so I had better keep the pedal to the metal. In addition to regularly attending office hours, I went to the on-campus tutoring department for extra review. In my free time, I answered every question in the textbooks, including ones that were not assigned. At the peak of my anxiety, I even sat in on chemistry classes I was not enrolled in just so I could hear the material discussed again and again and again.

In the end, the university gave me a merit scholarship for being one of the top three organic chemistry students out of approximately 600. Given my history with the subject and how hard I worked, receiving this award was one of the proudest achievements in my life. However, all that knowledge has played virtually no role in my work as a dietitian. Sure, I can explain the chemical structures of sugar alcohols and omega-3 fatty acids, why some fats are solids at room temperature while others are liquids, and how a bomb calorimeter works, but these skills make me no better of a clinician than a colleague who cannot do these things. Hopefully, chemistry requirements have scaled down in the years since I was a student, as my curriculum could have easily included less chemistry without negatively affecting my abilities as a practitioner.

Food Service

If you had no idea that many dietitians end up working in food service management, then you are in good company, as I had no idea about that either before I started nutrition school. To prepare us for this possible career track, the department had us take two courses in the hotel, restaurant, and travel administration (HRTA) program and two more in the management school.

Sometimes I contrast the difference between the random bits of information that have stuck with me from a course versus what I imagine those in charge of my education hoped I would retain. From the first HRTA course, I recall learning what a physical hazard is, how baby carrots are made, and that a successful coastal New England restaurant was thriving because of their choice of oven. All I remember from my human resource management course is working my ass off to show our professor – who warned us at the beginning of the semester that she does not give out As – that, actually, she does.

My second HRTA class made more of an impression, as it was a hands-on course that had us working in a semi-mock restaurant. We prepared and served real food to real customers, but no money changed hands because free food was their reward for being our guinea pigs. Joanne could tell you that whenever we meet someone who works in a restaurant, I pepper them with earnest questions that reflect my curiosity, such as how many eggs their diner goes through in a day. Given that, I thought this course was fascinating. We devised menus, planned theme meals, and rotated between all jobs in both the front and back of the house. Never having worked in a restaurant before, this was my first time being the target of the rudeness that some customers – even those who were eating for free and knew students were running the show – inflict upon those who wait on them.

Nutrition

And finally, the nutrition coursework itself began. The most basic class, Nutrition 101, was a survey class about the profession. This is where I learned that the term “nutritionist” has no legal definition, and anybody can call themselves one. The professor told us a story about someone who took an online test and received a nutritionist certificate – for their dog. One of my classmates announced to everybody that she was studying nutrition because she wanted to become a millionaire by inventing a fad diet.

Meal management and scientific principles, otherwise known as Nutrition 210, was an interesting course in that it included a lab component. Our experiments involved making several versions of a recipe and tweaking a variable, such as an ingredient or a preparation technique, to see how the changes affected the finished products. For example, we broiled, poached, and microwaved flounder fillets and then compared the texture and flavor of the cooked fish. We counted how many chews it took to sufficiently masticate pieces of top round sirloin prepared with a variety of tenderizers. My friend and I gave a group presentation on artificial sweeteners in which we compared popular myths versus what actual scientific research had found.

Nutrition 230 was a basic nutrition course in which we discussed the chemical structures, functions, and metabolism of various nutrients. Our professor told us that one of the reasons she chose a career in nutrition is because whenever she meets people, such as at a party, they are always interested in what she does. In contrast, many of our colleagues (including myself) try to conceal what we do for work because the follow-up questions – which are almost always based on myths and incorrect assumptions about our profession – can be frustrating and exhausting to answer.

A few years ago, I emailed my former Nutrition 352 professor, who has since been promoted to an associate dean, and let her know that my greatest regret from nutrition school is having sold my textbook soon after completing her life cycle nutrition course. Despite my two part-time jobs as a personal trainer and an assistant to the university’s food service dietitian, money was tight, and I felt I could use the cash more than a leftover textbook. Besides, I did not imagine that all these years later I would still be having occasions in which I want to refer back to it, yet that has turned out to be my reality. Fortunately, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ online Nutrition Care Manual contains a section on pediatric nutrition, which has somewhat filled the void, but I still wish I had that textbook.

Nutrition 572, community nutrition, is where I began to understand that food scarcity is not some abstract notion or one that only afflicted our ancestors and people in faraway lands, but rather one that is still a reality for many of our neighbors. One of our assignments was to go to the grocery store and design a diet that would nutritionally satisfy the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet while also financially satisfying the Thrifty Food Plan’s allowance of $4.37 per day. Even with my math background and nutrition knowledge, I could not do it, as the closest I could come was $4.77 per day, still $0.40 over budget. This course helped me to appreciate the impacts that financial limitations and food availability can have on health. The simple truth that people can only buy what they can afford and is accessible to them sounds so obvious now, but it took studying community nutrition for me to really get it. When I rode my bicycle from Seattle to Boston that summer, I made a point to visit the grocery stores on the Native American reservations that I passed through, as I wanted to understand the options available to the residents of these relatively isolated communities. Had I not taken community nutrition, I am not so sure I would have had the same level of curiosity.

In Nutrition 577, aptly titled nutritional problems in the United States, we studied the impact of nutrition on some of this country’s most common health concerns, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. Our professor was excellent, perhaps the best I ever had in nutrition school. She expected a lot from us, and she held herself to the same standard. She was also fat. While I did not judge her for her size, I remember perceiving that it was awkward for her – a nutrition expert in a bigger body – to teach us about “obesity.” Whether it was her or one of the other faculty of a similar build in our department, I cannot recall, but I do remember one of them explaining how difficult it was for them to be taken seriously because of their size. Many years later, this seed grew into a conference presentation I gave entitled “‘Looking the Part’: Patients’ Size-Based Biases Towards Their Practitioners and How to Handle Them.”

Medical nutrition therapy, Nutrition 580, was where the rubber met the road. We learned how to utilize the nutrition knowledge we had thus far accumulated and apply it to treating a wide variety of medical conditions. What stands out to me though are not the disease states we learned about, but rather some key ones that were omitted, namely eating disorders. Each of us had to research a disease (Mine was chronic pancreatitis.) and present to the class about it, and if not for another student’s brief presentation on anorexia nervosa, I would have gone the entire way through nutrition school having learned literally nothing about eating disorders. Maybe I am just biased because I now specialize in treating eating disorders, but it is hard for me to fathom that such an important group of illnesses that affect so many people was barely even mentioned.

Speaking of missing curriculum, the only counseling course we had was Nutrition 585. Of course, learning about the hard science of nutrition is important, but if dietitians are unable to effectively convey their knowledge to patients, then the information is moot. Before finishing nutrition school, I was already of the opinion that students (and therefore their future patients) would be better off if the required coursework focused less on the hard sciences, particularly chemistry, and more on counseling skills. My professional experience has only strengthened this stance.

My final course in the department was Nutrition 731, nutritional assessment. During my presentation on anthropometric predictors of cardiovascular disease, I demonstrated how hydration status introduces a source of error into bioelectrical impedance device readings that estimate body fat percentage by using such a device on myself at the beginning of my talk, then putting on a bunch of extra layers of clothes and giving the bulk of my presentation while riding an exercise bike, and then using the device again after having worked up a sweat.

Outside the Department

While taking the aforementioned nutrition courses, I also took classes in other departments, such as energy metabolism in the exercise science department. One of my takeaways from this class is just how difficult it is to design research studies that yield definitive answers. For example, our professor was confident that walking a mile and running a mile require the same caloric expenditures, but he could neither confirm nor reject this hypothesis because he could not design a study that would adequately control for all the confounding variables. He was also the first person to introduce me to the “fat-but-fit” concept, which is that someone can be both healthy and live in a bigger body.

The microbiology course I took in the food science department centered on foodborne illnesses. We learned about salmonella, staph, spores that survive cooking and freezing, and other scary things that to this day continue to make me think twice about some potential eating decisions. All these years later, I am still not brave enough to roll the dice with fried rice.

My psychology course was an introduction to the field’s basics with a focus on the nervous system’s structures and physiology. One of my takeaways was how important dietary fat is for maintaining the myelin sheaths that insulate our neurons and enable rapid transmission of electric impulses.

The nutrition program required some other courses that I was able to place out of due to my previous studies. For example, my English degree got me out of their nutrition and writing course, and my math degree similarly meant that I need not bother taking statistics. The child development course I took at Tufts enabled me to skip the same class at UMass.

Although I was fairly certain that I wanted to be a dietitian, I toyed with the idea of becoming a physical therapist, so I took some additional physics and anatomy courses that were prerequisites for physical therapy programs just to cover all my bases. Learning about anatomy was interesting, not so much because of the subject matter itself, but because it taught me the importance of speaking a patient’s figurative language. With my personal training clients most comfortable with colloquial terms like “chest” and “quads,” knowing the scientific names of hundreds of body parts proved fairly useless, and the knowledge soon escaped me.

Internship

Now you know what it took to earn the nutrition degree on my wall. One of the other significant documents that hangs near it is from my dietetic internship, which is somewhat like a future doctor’s residency and must be completed before dietitians-to-be can sit for their registration and licensing exam. Because this blog is already so lengthy that pretty much everybody has stopped reading by now (Hi, mom!), I will save discussing my internship until another time.

Continuous Glucose Monitoring

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“We start to, you know, numbers start to be overlaid onto everything like we’ve got some kind of headset on and we’re looking through it and there’s little value numbers attached to our foods and to the actions we take in our lives, and that’s tremendously unhealthy, I think, and can descend – you know, people I’ve interviewed and I’m sure people that you work with – can descend into pathology, right, where you’re constantly afraid that that equation is not right and you need to keep upping it and the output needs to be better and that you’re falling short. That’s not a good place to be.”

Dr. Alan Levinovitz, PhD, to Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CEDS, in Food Psych #94

Earlier this month, a friend asked me about an email he received from a company trying to sell him a subscription to their continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) service. Since some of you are likely unfamiliar with it, CGM technology allows its user to automatically track their blood sugar levels around the clock. The monitor itself is a small sensor typically placed on someone’s abdomen or arm, and it contains a needle that measures sugar concentration in the skin’s intercellular fluid. A transmitter attached to the sensor sends the information to a separate device, such as a smartphone, on which the user can view their blood sugar data. As the American Diabetes Association discusses, CGM is a legitimate medical tool that diabetics can utilize to help manage their condition.

What was surprising about the email that my friend received is that the solicitor was not marketing their CGM service to diabetics, but rather to the general population. Their subscription service provides users with CGM devices, tools for tracking their food consumption, and access to a team of dietitians who analyze the data and help clients to examine the link between their eating and blood sugar levels. That may sound innocent enough, but I have concerns.

Their website (to which I am purposely not linking in order to avoid driving traffic their way) features enticing language like “Reinforce Good Habits,” “Promote Longevity,” “Manage Weight,” and “Gain Energy.” With approximately 51% of adults wanting to lose weight and some estimates claiming that 45% of the general population experiences fatigue, these calls to action seem designed for mass appeal. Their pitch continues, “While each journey is unique, we’ve found that remarkable improvement to your health and well-being can be achieved in just a single year,” and includes alluring testimonials, such as, “I was really in a place where I thought I kind of knew my body and I know what I’m feeling. I WAS WRONG.”

When I clicked on the “Get Started” link, the following page presented me with a multiple-choice question regarding my goals. This is the first of approximately a dozen questions, each on its own page, that opened up for me to answer. Between questions, a quote from one of their staff dietitians affirmed – based on my answer to the preceding question – that I was in the right place and they could help me. Using the back button, I changed my answers a bunch of times to see if I could produce a different result, one in which they would say their service is not appropriate for me, but that never happened. My impression is that they welcome everyone as a customer, which must make for a great business model.

Dangers exist in overemphasizing a single parameter of health and insinuating that everyone can benefit from focusing on it. While people may debate the quantity and identities of the various aspects of health, all of the models that I have seen agree that health is multifaceted. Depending on the particular model in question, categories may include emotional health, social health, and physical health, among others. Taking a closer look at physical health yields subcategories, such as anthropometric, biochemical, and clinical measures, and each of these has numerous parameters within them. Casting a bright light on one variable, such as blood sugar, while leaving the others in the twilight is an oversimplification of health, and to suggest that everyone – not just those with a known issue with their glycemic control – would benefit from doing so is at best misleading.

An overarching danger is that someone could pursue better blood sugar levels at the expense of other aspects of their health. For example, a user could adopt eating behaviors that may keep their blood sugar in check, but create or exacerbate issues with their cholesterol or blood pressure. Perhaps someone else begins to view foods that spike their blood sugar as “bad” and others as “good,” thereby bringing about or worsening disordered eating. Others may pursue better blood sugar at virtually any cost, eliminating or severely restricting certain foods, socially isolating themselves so they can eat exactly as they think they should, all the while feeling that what they are doing is not good enough and they need to be more diligent, thereby taking their disorder up a notch with each iteration.

Thinking about this CGM service reminds me of the debate surrounding full-body CT scans that some suggest could enable doctors to catch budding diseases in their infancy. Check out this 2017 Food and Drug Administration article, particularly the following quote, and note the parallel between the problem with these scans and what this CGM company is doing.

“CT is recognized as an invaluable medical tool for the diagnosis of disease, trauma, or abnormality in patients with signs or symptoms of disease. It’s also used for planning, guiding, and monitoring therapy. What’s new is that CT is being marketed as a preventive or proactive health care measure to healthy individuals who have no symptoms of disease. Taking preventive action, finding unsuspected disease, uncovering problems while they are treatable, these all sound great, almost too good to be true! In fact, at this time the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knows of no scientific evidence demonstrating that whole-body scanning of individuals without symptoms provides more benefit than harm to people being screened.”

Similarly, while CGM can certainly be a helpful tool for some people with known blood sugar stability issues, whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks of applying the technology to someone without such a diagnosis is murky. In essence, this pros-vs.-cons question is what Dr. Levinovitz seemed to be getting at in his quote that kicked off this blog. It’s not that applying quantitative measures to our bodies and behaviors is always a negative; it’s that doing so is not always a positive either. Oftentimes, whether signing up for a CGM subscription service, buying a Fitbit, or downloading a calorie-tracking app, people go into such endeavors based solely on sales pitches and what they hope to get out of the experience while unaware of the risks that come along for the ride.

“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.

Weight Stigma in Healthcare Harms Us All

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The following is a guest blog written by Deirdre, who has given us permission to use her real name.

All my life, I’ve been sick. I can remember being five years old and waking up in the morning sobbing because my eyes were swollen shut, I could not breathe, I was always tired, and had severe skin conditions and rashes all the time. I had to go on nasal sprays, steroids, oral allergy medicines, and eye drops almost year-round from that age. Around the age of 14, I started to present with vomiting up bile every single solitary morning before proceeding with my day. Despite complaining to doctors all my life about all these things, I was ALWAYS considered healthy. The number one indicator for doctors? I was thin. I always had a “healthy” BMI, and all my bloodwork looked good, so nobody ever took me seriously.

Fast forward another decade. At this point, my body was so inflamed from consuming gluten – a protein which I later found out I was severely allergic to all along – that I had gained a significant amount of weight. I was 24 years old at this point, vomiting and having diarrhea after every single meal, suffering with mental illness (depression and anxiety, some from trauma but also largely because I *never* felt well and had no choice but to press on), smoking cigarettes constantly to suppress my appetite, abusing Adderall to suppress my appetite, exercising excessively (3-5 mile runs, 10 on weekends, and 2-hour workouts daily). Doctors still would not listen to me.

When I was thin, my health complaints were ignored because I was thin. When I was big, my health complaints were ignored because I was big. This is how weight stigma harms people of all sizes. When doctors are trained to view the BMI as such a strong indicator of our health, they tend to miss out on treating the whole patient and the concerns they are actually presenting. In this way, fatphobia continues to dominate our medical fields in the most insidious ways, regardless of a patient’s size.

When I was younger, I felt like my only sustainable solution was to put restrictions on my eating. I felt like I needed to do everything in my power to just not really eat. The only thing that ever felt good to me was mint chocolate chip ice cream. It was the one food that never made me sick. I ate a pint of it nightly, then would feel guilty, throw up the next morning involuntarily, feel good about that because I was disordered in my eating habits by then, and the cycle of “weight management” continued to wreak havoc on my life and destroy my gut health, self-esteem, and brain chemistry.

At 25, I was accepted to my dream graduate school for my health degree, and thus I was always in Boston. This meant finally seeking out primary care at Fenway Health and getting a fat-positive, conscious, and compassionate doctor for the first time in my life. Dr. Karen Kelly literally saved my life, as I know I would have attempted suicide that year if I had not met her. I was at my wit’s end.

Karen’s team allowed me to face away from the scale when they took my weight. I told Karen all the symptoms I’ve always had. She referred me to an incredible gastroenterologist who finally listened to me and tested me for a bunch of autoimmune gastroenterological diseases.

Notice that only now, because I finally was seeing a fat-positive doctor, was my weight looked past in order for me to receive the care I truly needed. My current health care team, including Karen, is amazing. It is a shame that all the doctors I ever saw prior assumed that being thin meant I was healthy. That mentality destroys a doctor’s ability to see clearly, and my chronic autoimmune disease was completely missed for 25 years as a result. If my celiac disease had been caught sooner, it could have meant avoiding severe damage to my organs, and possibly even reduced my chances of long-term health implications. Now I have to live with whatever damage has been done.

More and more public health research is finally showing that fat people can be healthier than thin people. More and more people are catching on that the BMI as a marker of health is a limited, archaic, outdated, weak, inaccurate, and frankly incredibly lazy way to approach medicine. It is a way for doctors to not do their jobs. All doctors should first and foremost be researchers and scientists listening, looking, and hypothesizing with open minds. I am almost the heaviest I have ever been now, yet my cholesterol, blood pressure, oxygen, etc., are all fantastic.

The concept of weight management is a barbaric and inhumane way for any doctor to practice. One hundred years from now, we will look back at the ways we tried to force mutilation on humans through diets and bariatric surgeries and see the oppressive reality of that kind of hatred of fatness. Doctors that focus on “weight management” and miss what is really going on need to start being held accountable – sued and fired by their patients.

I think that numbers are detrimental, and so is excessive monitoring of size and shape. We came here to live in these sacks of skin as vessels for our non-physical selves, our souls, and nothing more. The BMI is bullshit and was invented by an astronomer in the 1800s who only used white Anglo-Saxon males in his sample size. BMI does not account for muscle mass, bone density, or genetics. It does not leave room for all the boobs and butts and hips our bodies create to cushion us or to grow or feed our babies.

Someday I will have chapters in a book titled “the BMI is racist,” and “the BMI is sexist.” Once I am a doctor or nurse practitioner, I will create a new tool for epidemiologists to test that will actually be inclusive of all sexes, genders, races, etc., without poisoning our minds with self-doubt and self-mutilation.

If I had unbiased doctors all my life, I may have been diagnosed with celiac disease much earlier on and could have potentially saved myself from having cancer or infertility someday. I hope to live a long life and to have children and grandchildren, and I hope to leave them in a world with less weight stigma and more active listening, especially in the field of medicine.

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.

 

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.

Praising Adele’s Weight Loss Is Fatphobic

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The following is a guest blog written by “Sarah,” a nurse practitioner in the Boston area, who strongly believes in utilizing Health at Every Size (HAES) and anti-diet approaches in both her personal and professional lives. She has been Joanne’s patient for about six years and is in recovery from an eating disorder.

It is no secret that our current society is obsessed with physical appearance. The perceived attractiveness of a person very much determines how they are valued, respected, and treated. This is especially true in regard to women, and to an even further extent, celebrity women. 

At this point, I am sure most of you have come across recent media stories of renowned singer Adele’s dramatic weight loss. After an Instagram post from Adele of herself in a form-fitting dress, with a caption giving a mention of her birthday and a shout-out to the first responders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, comments swarmed in that had nothing to do with what she actually wrote. Now there were some comments that highlighted the fact that we should be praising Adele for her immense talent and not her appearance. Five or ten years ago, some of these comments would probably not have existed, and therefore that does highlight the progress we have made in rejecting diet culture and in the public knowledge of this movement. However, the majority of the comments praised her new, thinner, more “acceptable” body. 

Now I want to make it clear that I know absolutely nothing about Adele as a human, including her diet or exercise regimen. It is truly none of my or anyone else’s business what Adele decides to do or not to do in regard to her body. Even as someone who fully believes in HAES and is very anti-diet, if Adele did intentionally seek a smaller body, I can’t say that I blame her. Our world is a hostile place for those of us living in marginalized bodies. If you are fat, disabled, trans, poor, non-white, or any iteration of these, you are subjected to discrimination and othering. Therefore, it is no wonder why one would want to attempt to fit into a more socially respected body. 

I would normally say that it is unfair to assume anything about Adele’s means of attaining this new look, but in recent articles, she does discuss a particular diet of a VERY scary low number of calories (*trigger warning) and a rigidly structured exercise plan. Again, it is no one’s business how Adele decides to treat her body, but by the DSM standard, there is no question that she would be diagnosed with an eating disorder. I recognize that this is more of a systems issue, and those who mean well by praising her new body are operating under a fat-phobic structure. While eating disorder behaviors are considered concerning when the individual is thin, these same behaviors are encouraged for those who are in larger bodies. It is what we are taught and how we operate as a culture; it is no wonder that full recovery from eating disorders is so challenging (and oftentimes unachievable).

Now let’s get down to the real issue and meaning behind Adele’s weight loss (which really has not much to do with her at all). Body autonomy is part of the HAES movement, and I fully stand behind this for Adele or anyone else. It is the mere fact that a single picture can prompt so many comments (positive or negative) about one’s body that is the core issue here. 

The focus by others on a changing body, in a positive or negative way, often keeps people from recovering fully. If we lived in a world where a body was just a body regardless of how large or small it became, this would not even be a topic of conversation. Although it is an inevitable fact that bodies fluctuate for various reasons throughout the lifespan, we cannot seem to accept this as a society. Naomi Wolf stated: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Diet culture and fatphobia are the prime examples of this. We are taught that our worth depends on other people’s evaluation of us and that how our body looks to others matters more than how it feels to us. Especially as women, we are taught that making others happy is more important than making ourselves happy and that the most important thing is that others will like and approve of us, and therefore it is no wonder that we constantly rely on external validation to prove our worth.

Being fat and/or gaining weight is seen as the ultimate failure, and there is countless evidence of this belief expressed throughout history. We see and hear examples of this in our everyday lives, whether we recognize it or not. It is more common knowledge these days that “diets don’t work,” but we have yet to make significant progress in the idea that one’s body does not determine their worth. That is not to discredit all of the amazing progress that the HAES community has made, and as someone in a straight-size body, I cannot speak to the true experience of someone living in a larger, marginalized body. However, as a woman living in constant recovery from an eating disorder, I can say that the fear of weight gain has held me back in so many ways throughout this journey. Fatphobia truly affects everybody (whether they realize it or not) but is much more pervasive for women. 

I now know that these are reactive thoughts stemming from decades of diet culture brainwashing and the instinctual need to belong as a human. These messages have become even louder throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are we separated from many of our in-person support systems, dealing with real threats to our health and vitality, but we are relatively stuck at home with our thoughts. Although I do truly believe sitting and ruminating in these thoughts and fears can lead to growth in so many ways, it is also extremely triggering. We have less access physically and maybe financially to certain foods, and this can be triggering in itself.

To add to this, those who suffer from eating disorders and also live in larger bodies are especially vulnerable given the extreme fatphobia that knows no boundaries. There have been countless news articles claiming that people living in larger bodies are more susceptible to COVID-19. Not only is this untrue, but it is incredible healthism and just another example of diet culture profiting from our fears. Attempting to change one’s body size in the hopes of health and immortality has never worked in the past and scientifically never will. It is disappointing that these messages of blame and shame are being touted instead of compassion, inclusivity, and actual scientific facts, especially during this time. 

So how do we begin to change as a culture? By recognizing that beliefs and facts are not the same. By rejecting diet culture and recognizing that our body size or health status has nothing to do with our worth as humans and by treating others with respect and dignity just because they exist. As the wise Ragen Chastain said best: “Health is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control,” and this could not be more relevant in our current climate.

“Sometimes I want to binge so bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kids Are Alright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macy’s

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This month, Macy’s found themselves in hot water for selling plates, made by Pourtions, that many people criticized for encouraging eating disorders and fat shaming.

One of the plates, for example, features three concentric circles, the smallest of which is labeled “skinny jeans,” while the middle one reads “favorite jeans,” and on the largest of the three circles is emblazoned “mom jeans,” insinuating that the bigger the portion, the larger the pants size.

According to Huffington Post, Mary Cassidy, Pourtions’ president, explained, “Pourtions is intended to support healthy eating and drinking. Everyone who has appreciated Pourtions knows that it can be tough sometimes to be as mindful and moderate in our eating and drinking as we’d like, but that a gentle reminder can make a big difference. That was all we ever meant to encourage.”

Her company’s intentions do matter, for if they had purposely intended harm, then this would be a very different matter, but the impact remains the same whether their actions were malicious or an attempt at humor that missed the mark.

“These expectations can actually kill someone, and I know someone it has,” read a tweet from one responder, who elaborated that the plates spread a “toxic message, promoting even greater women beauty standards and dangerous health habits.”

Eating disorders are serious business. They can wreak havoc on one’s health, family, career, and life in general. And yes, they can be fatal. Additionally, they are more common than many people realize.

“As we all know, pressure to be thin leads to dieting, which can lead to a variety of problems, including eating disorders,” I wrote in the April 2016 issue of Boston Baseball. “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 fill section 41,” which is a large section in the bleachers behind the Red Sox bullpen.

One does not even have to have a diagnosed eating disorder to be suffering the effects of diet culture and weight stigma. We see plenty of disordered eating which can be comprised of a constellation of symptoms, such as a strong good/bad food dichotomy or feelings of guilt and virtue associated with eating behaviors, that does not meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific eating disorder but can be just as disruptive and dangerous.

When we work with people recovering from eating disorders and disordered eating, we help them to uncouple judgment from their eating behaviors, and part of this work entails exploring where they learned such judgment in the first place.

The judgments implied by the Pourtions plates are so blatant that they are self-explanatory, but sometimes the message is more subtle. For example, Trader Joe’s has a line of “reduced guilt” products, such as their low-fat mac and cheese, which implies increased guilt for its full-fat counterpart. One might argue that the “reduced guilt” tag is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick and is not to be taken to heart. Perhaps, but messages like these – whether in your face or toned down – are so commonplace that they are insidious.

Honoring internal eating cues is difficult to do in a society with pervasive messages that our bodies are not to be trusted. We have 100-calorie snack packs, for example, that people often utilize in an attempt to limit their consumption via an external control – in this case, the pre-portioned quantity – but the implication is that 100 calories is the correct amount to consume, that it should be enough food. In some cases, it will be, but 100 calories is an arbitrary amount of energy, and chances are low that it will just so happen to match up with someone’s hunger/fullness cues. If someone gets to the bottom of the bag and yet they are still hungry, the dissonance between their body saying, “Hey, I need more food,” and society saying, “Hey, you have already eaten enough,” is confusing and stressful.

The small print on food labels reads, “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs,” but time and time again, I have patients who believe they should be consuming 2,000 daily calories because food labels imply that this is the standard amount for an adult human. They then have difficulty making sense of their bodies asking for more food than that and feel tempted to restrict in an effort to match the label.

While I am not advocating for the abolition of food labels or snack packs, we have to consider the gap between impact and intent and realize that these tools might not actually be as helpful in reality as they seemed in their creators’ imaginations.

To Macy’s credit, they took the feedback they received to heart; seemingly realized that despite the humorous intent of the Pourtions products, the reality is that the plates are offensive and send harmful and dangerous messages; and consequently stopped selling them.