Emotional Eating

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Last week, I received the following email from one of my patients:

“I wanted to touch base about a concept that keeps coming up in food podcasts/books/articles, etc. The idea of ‘emotional eating,’ and what that even means. I understand that it is the idea of food being comforting and thus using it as a coping mechanism, but isn’t food almost always tied with emotion (happy, guilty, satisfied/pleased, disappointed, etc.)?

“I think this concept is referring to eating when not hungry to deal rather than other ways, but often I hear rethinking if that cupcake in the middle of the afternoon is what you need or to call a friend or go for a walk.’ Yes, I agree that sometimes if I am tired, I will crave these foods, and realize I just need a nap. However, what if I crave a sweet snack in the middle of the afternoon, after lunch, because I am hungry and that’s what I want? To be honest, I don’t love this idea because it feels judge-y. Am I interpreting it wrong?

“Also, on a Friday after a long week, I look forward to a drink, a meal of my choice, and some popcorn in front of the TV. Does that make me an ‘emotional eater,‘ too? I don’t think that is wrong but maybe this is not how I should be coping with stress…? Thanks!”

“Emotional eating” is a buzzword phrase that seems to be everywhere lately. Many of my patients come to me to help them stop “emotionally eating” because they see it as a problem or a failure on their part. I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I believe emotional eating is and what it isn’t and whether it should be seen as problematic or not.

From the time that we are babies, feeding (i.e., via breast milk or formula) is one of the very first ways our parents/caretakers take care of us and show us love. Feeding and eating are primal actions that serve as a way to keep us alive; we depend on our caretakers to help us with this at the beginning. When a baby is hungry, he or she will cry, and the caretaker will provide nourishment to take away the feelings of discomfort from hunger and give the baby satisfaction. This basic hunger-crying-feeding-satisfaction loop happens over and over again and basically cements itself in the infant’s brain that the only way to get rid of one’s uncomfortable hunger is to cry until mom or dad gives the infant nourishment. This way, a very strong connection is forged between food and love as our caretakers are the first ones in our lives who provide both of these necessities to us.

As we grow up, food and eating situations are often connected with emotions. For instance, you might have very strong and fond memories of your grandmother’s apple pie and how lovingly she served it to you on special occasions. Or perhaps you remember how your dad used to make you the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich for school every day, cutting off the crusts just so, and how this made you feel loved and special. We collect these eating/emotion experiences throughout our lifetime, and as a result of this, we can elicit some of the above emotions by eating some of the associated foods.

I believe that while eating can often be associated with emotions, it does not necessarily need to be problematic. When most people nowadays use the term “emotional eating,” I believe they are referring to the behavior of trying to cope with negative emotions or situations by eating comfort food in the absence of hunger. In my opinion, someone occasionally dealing with their emotions by eating is not a big deal, but if it becomes a chronic habit that is bringing discomfort or pain and/or not truly helping to assuage that person’s negative emotion or situation, that would be something to be curious about in a very neutral and self-compassionate way. It’s important to realize that feeding ourselves comfort food sometimes even if we are not hungry is one way that we are trying to take care of ourselves. It might not be the most helpful or effective way to give ourselves self-care, but it is a self-care attempt nonetheless.

In response to my patient’s thought that food is “almost always tied with emotion,” I would say that many eating situations are not necessarily connected with emotion. For instance, I had an apple and a piece of cheese for snack today, and while it was tasty and satisfying, I didn’t have any emotions associated with it. I also think one can crave a cupcake in the afternoon for no other reason than it is what they are humming for at the time. It doesn’t have to be emotional.

At the end of the day, “emotional eating” is something that nearly everyone engages in from time to time. In and of itself, it doesn’t need to be a problem, but if it becomes the only way that you cope with negative feelings or situations and it is bringing you distress, it would be worth it to try and develop other coping strategies (with the help of a therapist) to deal with these feelings/situations in a more constructive manner.

He Said, She Said: Sports and Nutrition

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He Said

Leading up to this month’s Newport Marathon, I solicited advice from colleagues around the world as well as fellow marathoners regarding fueling strategies that might help me to avoid the nausea that plagued me in earlier endurance events.

The suggestions I received were all over the place: Eat boiled potatoes with salt late in the race. Pack maple syrup in a fanny pack and drink it periodically along the course. Eat bananas, orange wedges, gummy bears, white bread, salt bagels, or jelly beans. Drink Gatorade, Pedialyte, flat beer, coconut water, Nuun, Skratch Labs, or mix the latter two together.

As I sifted through the various suggestions, I realized I was looking at a great example of the intersection between the hard science of nutrition and intuitive eating. During endurance events, we need to replenish fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes, but how we do that must be individualized based on what works for each one of us; thus we need the gamut of ideas. How we determine what works best for us is by trying various approaches based upon sound nutrition guidance and personal history, paying attention to how each trial makes us feel, and basing new iterations largely on firsthand experience.

Sometimes we, as patients, have a tendency to defer entirely to our practitioners. We see comfort in directives. “Just tell me what to eat,” a patient may say. In reality, a collaborative approach tends to be much more effective in part because determining the best path involves the patient’s input and experiences. Hydrating with a particular beverage may seem great on paper, for example, but if it disagrees with the patient’s system, then we need to form a different strategy.

Patient input is one of the most significant differences between textbook nutrition and nutrition in real life, which is why Joanne and I strive to create an atmosphere of collaboration and equality at our practice. Only our patients know how various foods make them feel, so we focus on building intuitive eating skills in part so they are able to recognize and communicate these experiences.

Leading up to the marathon, I treated every athletic endeavor as an opportunity to experiment and gather data regarding how various foods and fluids made me feel. One of the drinks I tried during a tennis practice failed to hit the spot whatsoever, but better to find that out during a casual hitting session than during an important training run or the marathon itself. Another beverage worked really well once I was actually running but made me jittery beforehand. Some foods gave me cramps and made me feel sluggish whereas others settled better than I expected. All of these outcomes, even if they were not what I had hoped, represented important data.

As a result of my experiments, I knew exactly what I was going to eat and drink come race day. Breakfast consisted of white toast with peanut butter, honey, and sliced banana with orange juice and Nuun Active. Between breakfast and the start of the race, I drank Gatorade and water until a half hour before the start, at which time I downed more Nuun Active. During the race itself, I consumed Gatorade and bananas from the aid stations as well as Nuun Energy and salted pretzels that I brought with me. Worked like a charm.

If your takeaway from this column is that you should adopt my own specific food and hydration plan during your own athletic events, then unfortunately you have missed the point: the importance of individuality. As I downed the last of my Nuun Active before the start, my friend with whom I ran the race strapped small vials of maple syrup to her waist, a fueling technique that she knew from experience would work for her. If she and I had swapped strategies, both of us would probably have felt awful. We are all different, so figuring out what works best for you is a process that involves both guidance from a professional as well as your own input based on firsthand experiences.


She Said

From a young age, I participated in a variety of team sports, including soccer, softball, and volleyball. While I truly loved playing these sports, my family was a tennis family, in that tennis was a sport that we all learned to play as children and enjoyed playing together. As I got older, I played tennis less and less, usually just hitting the ball around for fun with my family on vacations or with Jonah on a public court during the summer. But about 3 years ago, I decided to get back into the sport that I had enjoyed so much in my youth, so I joined several local women’s tennis teams.

While my overall experience on these teams has been overwhelmingly positive, whenever the topic of food or weight comes up, I have noticed some troubling trends. Whether it is one of my teammates or one of our opponents, a number of these women exhibit quite disordered ideas about food and weight.

When I was new to one of my teams, I remember one of my teammates asking me what I do for a living. After I told her that I work primarily with individuals struggling with eating disorders (EDs), she jokingly commented, “Oh, I so wish I had an eating disorder! I just can’t seem to lose these pesky 10 pounds!” I was very quick to correct her and explain how dangerous and life-threatening EDs are and that they are not simply something that someone can choose to engage in or not to lose a few pounds.

In addition to misunderstanding EDs and the seriousness of these disorders, many of the tennis women I encounter seem to struggle with diet mentality. A couple of years ago, I remember one of my tennis friends casually mentioning that one of the primary reasons she plays so much tennis is that it allows her to eat whatever she wants. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from other tennis peers, implying that they view tennis first and foremost as a way to burn calories.

At nearly all of my tennis matches, the home team provides food for the visitors and themselves. Depending on the time of the matches, the foods offered can range from simple snacks to pretty substantial lunches. Of course, with all of this food come a lot of shame, guilt, and judgments. I overheard one group of ladies on an opposing team debating whether they would have one of the cookies offered, with one of them declaring that she does not allow herself any “white carbs.” Other times I have seen women eating only salad or protein, as they are “trying to be good.”

Diets are a hot topic at many of my matches and practices. From Paleo to Whole 30 to Shakeology, a great number of the tennis women engage in restrictive eating in one form or another. One of my tennis friends started a cleanse not too long ago because she felt like she really needed to “detox” her liver and other organs. Another friend has been eschewing carbohydrates during the week and only indulging in them on her “cheat days.” As one might imagine, I try not to engage in any diet conversations as they can become quite charged. But when I mention what I do for a living, it seems like many of these women are only too happy to talk to me about food and nutrition.

I really don’t blame these tennis ladies for their disordered ideas about food, nutrition, and weight – they are subject to the numerous fear-mongering messages we all receive from our doctors, from the media, and from our friends and family. Talking about one’s diet or weight has become so commonplace that the idea of not talking about it seems strange somehow. But just think about all of the other things we could discuss! All of the ideas and stories we could share with each other! Wouldn’t that be more fun than talking about how to lose those pesky 10 pounds?

At the end of the day, I try to pick my battles. If someone asks me about my thoughts on dieting or certain foods, I will oblige. I try to be gentle with them around my strong anti-diet philosophy as it can be quite surprising and confusing for many people. When it comes to EDs, I do my best to educate those who ask about them. So far, many of my teammates have expressed interest in the idea of intuitive eating and the non-diet approach, so I have tried to point them in the right direction by recommending books and other resources. If I can somehow help even one of them to ditch the diets and begin to appreciate their body for what it can do (e.g., play tennis!), then I will feel like I have made a difference.

He Said, She Said: Obesity Awareness Month

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He Said

The concept of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month is flawed in several ways, many of which Joanne covers in her She Said passage. The most glaring issue, in my opinion, is that by promoting the use of weight as a proxy for health, the government is paradoxically distracting from matters of actual health.

Human beings can be healthy at a variety of weights, which is why we cannot draw accurate conclusions about someone’s health or behaviors based solely on their size. Thin folks can have plenty of medical woes. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a slender friend of mine who was diabetic, suffered a heart attack, and ultimately died of cancer. Someone might be thin due to food insecurity, a medical condition, psychological disturbances, eating disorders or disordered eating, or overexercise, just to name a few of the health-threatening issues that might lead to lowered body weight.

With a focus on obesity, not only do we miss an opportunity to identify and assist people at risk for or suffering from these problems, but we actually push them in the direction of trouble. For example, I have recently seen an increase in pediatric patients, including males, with eating disorders or disordered eating that reportedly stemmed from a fear of getting fat brought on by discussions at school or the doctor’s office.

One of my teenage patients recently told me how his pediatrician praised him for having lost weight from one annual checkup to the next after having chastised him the year before, but what his doctor did not know was that my patient had overexercised and restricted his food intake leading up to the appointment for fear that his doctor would again be mad at him if he had not lost weight. My patient’s behaviors brought him further away from health, not towards it, and the poor communication between him and his doctor puts him at risk for improper care in the future. Furthermore, food restriction elevates his risk for binge eating disorder and, ironically, ultimate weight gain.

Trust me, children who are obese already know it. They hear about it on the playground, in gym class, on television, online, maybe in the pediatrician’s office, and from other sources that tell them something is wrong with their bodies and it is their fault. National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month calls even more attention to them and their bodies, thereby exacerbating stigmatization and bullying.

The concept of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month may be well intentioned, but its fallout is the exact opposite of the desired effect. If we want to improve the actual health of our children, better to promote size diversity and the importance of healthy behaviors, such as fun and appropriate physical activity, for everybody.


She Said

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Per the HHS website, “one in 3 children in the United States are overweight and obese,” putting kids at risk for developing health problems such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. The website goes on to say that childhood obesity is preventable, as “communities, health professionals, and families can work together to create opportunities for kids to eat healthier and get more active.” Some of the strategies that the HHS recommends are nutrition based, such as “keeping fresh fruit within reach” and providing healthier food options at school, and other strategies are focused on activity levels, such as encouraging families to go on an after-dinner walk and incorporating daily physical activity at school.

While I actually applaud the strategies put forth by the HHS to improve kids’ health, I am saddened to see the focus be on body size. Thanks to Michelle Obama, childhood obesity is at the forefront of the American consciousness. Kids are being weighed and measured at school and then later sent home with a health report card telling them whether they are at a “healthy” body mass index (BMI) or are in the “overweight” or “obese” categories. Even though the medical community as a whole willingly acknowledges that the BMI is woefully flawed as an indicator of health status, it still condones its use in determining the health of our kids. Time and time again, studies have shown that behaviors rather than weight are a better determinant of health, but unfortunately, this is not being reflected in current policy.

My greatest concern is the effect that focusing on childhood obesity could be setting up kids to develop eating disorders (EDs). I cannot tell you how many preteens who have stepped into my office had been sent home with their BMI report card and then developed either extremely disordered eating or an actual diagnosable ED. What often happens is that the parents become alarmed at their child’s negative BMI report and will start to impose harsh diet restrictions and exercise ultimatums. I had one patient whose father promised her and her sister iPads if they both lost weight. Not only would he limit their access to “junk” food, he would make them run laps around their neighborhood after dinner every night. As a result of this, the patient developed a very disordered relationship with food and her body. This story is not unique, unfortunately. I have heard it too many times to count.

So, I have a few issues with the HHS’s focus on obesity. First of all, I don’t believe that we should have schools be weighing and measuring kids and sending them home with a BMI report card. Instead, the child’s pediatrician and parents should be the gatekeepers of the child’s health. Every child has their own unique growth charts – some trend on the higher end of weight for height, while others trend on the lower end of the chart. In other words, some kids are just meant to be in bigger bodies, while others are meant to be in smaller bodies. These body sizes do not tell us anything about the child’s health unless there are major changes in either direction. For instance, one would expect a child trending on the 85th percentile to stay at that percentile. If there was a sharp drop to the 50th percentile, that would be cause for concern. Similarly, if a child was trending on the 50th percentile and then jumped up to the 90th percentile, that should also be looked at. One body type is not inherently healthier than the other – every body is unique.

In addition, I think it is so important to not speak negatively about a child’s weight. Kids are like sponges, and they pick up on everything. Talking with one’s child about how their body works and teaching them how to take care of it is one thing, but telling a child that they are too big and need to lose weight is extremely damaging and can set the child up for years of negative body image and a life of disordered eating. Many EDs start when a well-meaning parent tries to teach their child to diet and use exercise to burn calories. In fact, there are a number of studies that show that when children are put on restricted diets, they will often end up being heavier adults.

Also, I think that if a parent has concerns about his or her child’s weight, they should talk with their child’s pediatrician separately (i.e., not with the child in the room). Instead of telling the parent that their child simply needs to lose weight, it would be wonderful if pediatricians did not just make an assumption based solely on the child’s weight that the child is engaging in unhealthy behaviors. If it is determined that the child is in fact not practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors, it would be best if the doctor just focused on helping the child develop these healthy habits (perhaps by referring them to a registered dietitian or other health care provider) and measure the child’s progress by their weight.

Given that, I don’t think that National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month is helpful at all in helping our kids lead healthier lives. By teaching them that weight is synonymous with health, we are doing them a major disservice. Perhaps September could instead be called National Healthy Habits Awareness Month? Just a thought.

Hold Off On Time-Delayed Eating

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You may have caught a recent New York Times piece entitled “Time-Delayed Eating Leads to Better Food Choices” in which the author writes, “A series of experiments at Carnegie Mellon University found that when there was a significant delay between the time a person ordered their food and the time they planned on eating it, they chose lower-calorie meals.”

Dr. Eric VanEpps, the post-doctoral student who led the research, elaborates, “If a decision is going to be implemented immediately, we just care about the immediate consequences, and we discount the long-term costs and benefits. In the case of food, we care about what’s happening right now – like how tasty it is – but discount the long-term costs of an unhealthy meal. [When we order a meal in advance], you’re more evenly weighing the short-term and long-term costs and benefits. You still care about the taste but you’re more able to exert self control.”

Self control, unhealthy, lower-calorie . . . Based on the language Dr. VanEpps uses and the undercurrent of a good/bad food dichotomy, time-delayed eating sounds like yet another dieting tool right up there with drinking a glass of water before sitting down to a meal, consuming caffeine to stave off hunger, or not eating after a certain time of evening. We all know by now that dieting rarely works, right?

Regarding the research at hand, two of the pieces discussed in the New York Times article are hidden behind pay walls except for their abstracts. While I can only comment on what I am able to read, the information available to me leads to many important follow-up questions.

What happens when the time comes to eat and the food you ordered long ago does not meet your intuitive needs in the moment? Will you eat it anyway? If not, what is plan B? If you do eat it, might you consume more of it than you really need in an attempt to satisfy yourself through sheer quantity? Will you overeat by beginning your feeding with your pre-ordered food only to follow it up by eating something else that you actually want?

Consider a personal example. A little over a decade ago, I went through a phase where I was modifying cookie recipes in all sorts of ways in an effort to make them “healthier”: nuts and dried fruit instead of chocolate chips, oil instead of butter, whole wheat instead of white flour, reduced sugar, etc. These changes sounded good in theory, but who was I kidding; these “cookies” were only cookies by name and bore a stronger resemblance to pancakes. They never quite hit the spot. When you want cookies, no amount of pancakes will satisfy. Either I ate the healthier cookies by the batch in an effort to quell my cookie craving, or I chased them with traditional baked goods anyway. Now that I make normal cookies full of butter, sugar, white flour, and chocolate chips, I only need to eat one or two in order to feel satisfied.

Consider the short-term and long-term ramifications of time-delayed eating. If you just consumed a meal you did not really want but ate anyway, what happens at the next meal, or later that evening? How do you eat the next day? The next week? The next six months? The restriction/binge cycle of dieting suggests that sooner or later there will be consequences somewhere down the road.

One of my patients is coming off a serious health scare and has completely revamped his way of eating over the last year. On the weekends, his family maps out exactly what they will eat each day of the upcoming week and then they shop only for the ingredients necessary to implement their plan. When Thursday evening rolls around and the dinner entree he scheduled five days earlier no longer sounds appealing, he eats it anyway. He may not love it, but he can tolerate it.

Right now, he does not mind taking a utilitarian approach to his eating. So far, it seems to be working for him, and who knows, maybe it always will, but as his dietitian I have to think ahead to what might happen in the coming months and years as the fear associated with his medical incident subsides and leaves him with a different picture of motivation than the one he holds today. In other words, how long can one tolerate eating foods that may seem healthy on paper, but on the enjoyment scale are only meh?

Similarly, I encourage you to consider the aftermath you are likely to have on your hands if you try time-delayed eating and find yourself trying to reconcile the food you pre-selected for yourself and what you actually want to eat in the moment. If the research teaches us anything, it’s that such discrepancies are a virtual certainty to occur.

The Tipping Point

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You probably heard about Gina Kolata’s piece in the New York Times earlier this month detailing commonplace weight regain among Biggest Loser competitors, but you may have missed Dr. Sandra Aamodt’s excellent follow-up piece in which the neuroscientist shares research showing just how unlikely long-term weight loss is for any of us, not just the show’s former contestants.

While this information might be news to some of us, data showing commonplace weight regain among people who attempt to lose it has been available for quite a while, yet it has not garnered much mainstream attention despite years of efforts from researchers, advocacy groups, activists, and practitioners around the world, including myself.

Regardless of what our goals are, nobody wants to hear that they are probably unattainable, which partially explains why the myth of weight loss has survived. Unfortunately, yet understandably, people are reluctant to listen when receiving a message they do not want to hear.

The problem, however, runs deeper. The notion that we can lose weight and keep it off if only we try hard enough has taken on “everybody knows” status. We hear it in our fitness centers, around the proverbial office water cooler, up in the bleachers at Little League games, and at spring cookouts. The message is so commonplace that we do not stop to question its validity.

Doctors, dietitians, and other healthcare practitioners can inadvertently contribute to the mess. We are human and vulnerable to the same “everybody knows” paradigm too, and sometimes we take treatment guidelines at face value without looking into them for ourselves.

Lump the green version of myself in there as well. I shake my head with embarrassment and shame at some of the advice I doled out early in my career before I knew better, and I wish my profession as a whole would get up to speed.

We see the “success stories,” the people in our lives who were able to lose weight and keep it off, at least so far. The Massachusetts State Lottery website features pictures and stories of its recent million-dollar winners, but their enticing smiles do not change the reality that the most likely outcome of buying a ticket is financial loss.

Children observe their parents looking critically in the mirror, associating guilt and virtue with eating and exercise behaviors, and oscillating between rigid restriction and binges. The torch of dieting and weight obsession passes to the next generation.

If the myth of weight loss dies, so do the $60,000,000,000-per-year diet industry and the privilege enjoyed by the thin in a culture thick with fat shaming and weight stigma. They keep the fantasy alive and have plenty of incentive to make sure we continue to feel bad about ourselves.

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force to overcome, not just for laymen, but for everyone. Given the strong headwind, I am pleased to see this information finally receiving the widespread attention it so desperately needs.

Ms. Kolata and Dr. Aamodt certainly deserve credit for their parts, but so does everybody who has ever made an effort to get the word out – practitioners and researchers who risked career suicide, activists for whom death threats are a daily way of life, and patients who have stood up and demanded evidence-based care – as they have also contributed to what I hope is finally the tipping point.

He Said, She Said: Exercise as Penance

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He Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She Said

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

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

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

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

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


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Generally speaking, Zootopia is a really nice Disney film. As Joanne and I were walking out of the theater and talking about how much we both liked it, she turned to me and said, “There was only one thing about it that bothered me, and I am guessing you know what it is.” Sure enough, I did, as the same problem had caught my eye as well.

The main reason I like the film is because it teaches some wonderful lessons about having the courage to be different, break down barriers, and acknowledge and overcome prejudice. However, the writers missed an opportunity to apply these same themes to body size and instead reinforced widely-held stereotypes about larger individuals.

Although the film does feature characters of various shapes and sizes, both protagonists are stick thin while the rounder characters are generally presented in a more negative light, such as the main character’s portly father, who in his first scene explains how he was too afraid to go after what he really wanted in life and settled for one spent as a carrot farmer.

The most glaring example is Officer Clawhauser, a large, dopey, and disorganized character often shown with food or in the act of eating. An early scene in the film portrays him as so messy and oblivious that he is unaware that he has a donut lodged in his collar.

How ironic, and unfortunate, that in a film that is largely about breaking down stereotypes, Disney glaringly reinforces one. The writers probably never even considered there might be an issue with this because the sad truth is that in a society in which we generally reject stereotypes based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, we inexplicably tolerate those based on body size that are no more accurate than the others, yet are just as abhorrent.

If you bring your children to see Zootopia, consider using the occasion to talk about body size and its associated prejudice. The film does a solid job of teaching that not all prey animals are cowardly, predators need not be savage, and the symbolism contained therein about the human race, but it misses an opportunity to shut down the stereotypes that heroes must be thin and larger individuals are glutinous, lazy, or unkept. This is where you, the parents, can come in and complete the lesson.

Objective / Subjective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthcare For Some

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

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

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

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

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

He Said, She Said: “I want to lose weight”

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He Said

When faced with “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” most people seemingly prefer to hear the latter first. With that in mind, let us first look at the results of weight loss pursuits before coming around to the opportunities we have for change.

Short-term and long-term weight loss are two entirely different animals. The ease with which short-term weight loss is promoted creates false expectations for long-term weight loss. Pretty much any kind of restriction (Paleo, Weight Watchers, gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, weighing/measuring portions, following a scripted meal plan, commercial meal substitutes, etc.) performs about the same: initial weight loss followed by regain that often surpasses the baseline weight. The overall body of research suggests that pursuit of intentional weight loss is approximately 12 times more likely to result in ultimate weight gain rather than loss.

The patients who come to me looking to lose weight often have similar stories. They list the various diets they have tried over the years before disclosing “and now I am the heaviest I have ever been in my whole life.” Frequently, they look back on their body size and shape from before the first diet, the body they were unhappy with at the time, with a new longing, like an empty-handed gambler wishing he had put his coins to better use rather than wasting them in the slot machine.

While their reasons for wanting to lose weight vary, they are all valid and understandable in the context of our society in which weight stigma, size discrimination, diet culture, and misinformation are so prevalent. These unfortunate realities bleed into our healthcare system and can influence otherwise-great doctors to recommend weight loss rather than evidence-based treatments.

The good news is that the underlying reasons for wanting to lose weight are oftentimes attainable if we pursue them directly rather than using weight loss as a proxy. Whether your goal is to improve your blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, control your blood sugar, perform your sport better, our build a fabulous wardrobe, or anything else along those lines, your likelihood of success is much higher if you put weight to the side and go for your goal head-on.


She Said

Weight is a heavy topic (pun intended) in my work with eating disorders. Even though I put a lot of effort into making sure that weight is not the focus of my work with patients, inevitably, it will come up. Usually, my patients express fear around the possibility of gaining weight by eating intuitively (or by following a meal plan). In addition to this fear of weight gain, many of my patients also desperately want to lose weight. When the patient is in the “overweight” or “obese” BMI category (a completely bogus way of measuring one’s health), the discussion of losing weight is particularly tricky. Oftentimes this patient will come into my office with a recommendation from their doctor to lose 10% of their body weight in order to improve their health. This, coupled with society’s belief that “everybody knows that being heavy is unhealthy,” also complicates matters considerably.

When a patient comes to see me with hopes that I will help him or her lose weight, I often feel like the Grinch. As I try to explain to them that weight is not a measure of health, that one can be heavy and healthy (or thin and unhealthy), and that society’s fear and hatred of fat is a real thing, I can see their eyes glaze over. And then, when I talk about how 95-98% of all intentional weight loss attempts (via diets) result in weight regain, sometimes I can see panic in their eyes. You see, even though “everybody knows” that diets don’t work, many people believe that if they just try hard enough and if they really, really want it, they can be part of that 2-5%.

As Jonah and I have written about too many times to count, we practice from a Health at Every Size® (HAES) perspective. This means that we believe that health is a multifactor concept that cannot just be boiled down to how much someone weighs. We believe that when someone eats in a nourishing, pleasurable, and intuitive way, when someone engages in physical activity that feels good to their body, when they manage their stress, get enough sleep, avoid smoking, manage health conditions with the help of a health professional, etc., that they can achieve health regardless of what the scale says. Weight only gives us a tiny bit of information about the person. It can tell us something is amiss if there is a large shift either up or down (unintentional weight gain or loss), but otherwise, by itself, it really cannot tell us if someone is healthy.

Another thing I talk about with my patients is that bodies are supposed to come in all shapes and sizes. Even though our society might disagree, some people are just meant to be larger than others. It’s in our genes. We all have a set weight range where our weight would naturally settle in if we ate and moved intuitively. While we might have some ability to move up or down a couple of pounds within this weight range, trying to go outside this weight range takes extreme measures. Our bodies fight these extreme measures in every way possible, but for 95-98% of us, we will return to our set weight range, regardless of whether or not we continue dieting.

But in our society, being heavy is seen as a weakness in someone’s character, that he or she is lazy, undisciplined, and reckless with their health. People make assumptions about others based on their weight, and it seriously stinks. So when an “overweight” or “obese” patient comes into my office desperately wanting to lose weight, I get it. No one wants to be seen as lazy, weak-willed, or stupid. My hope is that someday soon society’s views about weight will shift and that people will start to understand that we all have different genetic makeups, and that while weight can tell us what our relationship with gravity is, it cannot tell us whether someone is healthy, happy, or worthy.