Blaming the Victim

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Perhaps you caught last month’s news story about a tech CEO who was hit by a car and killed crossing a street in Acton. He was a friend of mine from college. The driver took away a leader from a company, a husband from a wife, and a father from two young daughters, and severely derailed the trajectory of their own life in the process.

Some of the details omitted from the published story include that he was crossing the street to meet his wife for dinner and that the driver hit him while he was in a crosswalk. Try telling that to the internet trolls who left some ignorant comments suggesting that my friend may have been looking at his phone or crossed without looking.

Their comments got me thinking, and I remembered that blaming the victim is largely about fear. Admitting that we have limited control over our fates is scary, so much so that some of us find some comfort in assuming that a victim must have made some error and brought their end upon themselves.

Looking back, I experienced some of this myself with my three back surgeries. When I had the first operation to remove a tumor, some people questioned how I could possibly have developed one and suggested that I must have grown up under high voltage wires or that I did not take care of myself. No, my environment was fine, I was an athlete, and I had a balanced diet (by adolescent standards). When I had my first spinal fusion, some people assumed I must have done something stupid in the weight room to necessitate the repair, but no, it was really just the fallout from a freak accident and residual structural issues from the tumor. The next year, when I had to have a second fusion because the first one did not work, some people figured the surgeon must have screwed up or that I did something wrong with my rehab. No, sometimes surgeons do everything right and the patient can look on paper like the ideal candidate to heal well, and yet, in a small percentage of cases – including mine – problems still arise.

Our health is no exception to the reality that our outcomes are only somewhat in our control. We live in a culture that blames “overweight” people for their size, that if they only were disciplined enough to eat less and exercise more that they would be thinner, while the reality is that long-term weight regulation is largely regulated by factors unrelated to our behavior. We look at scary diseases and hope we can ward off morbidity and mortality by creating and avoiding dietary demons, yet people of all ages and behavior profiles still get sick and die.

A few days after my friend was killed, my daughter and I had a close call ourselves while I was walking her to school. We got to a crosswalk, I hit the button to activate the flashing yellow lights, the cars in both directions stopped for us, and we began to cross. Before we could make it across, an SUV pulled out from the school’s driveway. Perhaps the driver saw the stopped cars and thought they were waving her in. Regardless, without looking in our direction, she turned onto the street towards us and hit the accelerator. I started running, and it was a close enough call that I arched my back in order to avoid the corner of her front bumper. When I glanced back at the driver, she looked horrified. As we continued on our way, the driver repeatedly yelled to us, “I’m so sorry!”

I was angry, just as I was when I heard my friend died. I was angry at both drivers, and I was mad at our society that normalizes and enables careless driving. However, beneath my anger was fear. We live in a world in which someone can do everything right and still have things go very, very wrong, which is horrifying, and we attempt to shield ourselves from this fear by assuming that victims brought their fates upon themselves.

Boundary Phrases for the Holidays

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It’s November, so that means that holiday season 2022 is in full swing. The last couple of years, due to the pandemic, we have not been to an in-person family Thanksgiving (the last one being Thanksgiving 2019). While it has been sad to not be able to be in close quarters with our families during the holidays, I also have to admit that at times, I felt relief at not being able to attend in-person Thanksgiving. Inevitably, talk about food/dieting/bodies comes up (especially when we spend Thanksgiving with my side of the family), and it often feels exhausting to try to navigate my way through these discussions. Five years ago, I wrote the Holiday Survival Guide edition of our newsletter, detailing some strategies for dealing with weight/food/diet talk that many of us encounter at these gatherings.

While much of what I wrote in that blog still rings true for me, I have had some more thoughts about how to make these types of holiday gatherings less fraught for my patients. Specifically, I have been thinking about how having your own “boundary phrases” at the ready could be key in helping you get through these tricky situations. And, given that we will be going to an in-person Thanksgiving this year thanks to our daughter finally getting vaccinated and us having boosters, I am sure that I will be putting these into practice for myself.

Boundary phrases are phrases that one can use to establish a boundary with a friend, family member, or acquaintance who has overstepped your comfort level. While boundary phrases can be used in many different situations and for many different reasons, I think having some that are specific to weight/food/diet comments at the ready could help my patients feel more confident at holiday gatherings. As such, I thought it made sense to put together a list of some of my favorite body boundary phrases that have worked for me and for some of my patients. As always, these might not work in every situation, but I’m hopeful that you will see one that feels like a good fit for you.

1. In response to someone making comments on your (or others’) bodies in a negative way.

“Yikes…commenting on other people’s bodies is really not OK!”

“Please don’t comment on my body again.”

2. In response to someone saying fatphobic things to you when they “only care about your health!”

“The only person I discuss my health status with is my doctor.”

“If you truly care about my health, then please also care about my mental health as commenting on my body is harmful.”

3. In response to someone telling a fat joke or making derogatory comments about fat people in general:

“Huh. That’s a really odd thing to say – I’m not sure why you shared it with me.”

“Could you explain to me why that was funny?”

“I hope you aren’t saying this to me because you think I agree.”

4. In response to someone making comments about what you are eating, specifically if they are trying to be “helpful” in identifying “fattening” foods you should avoid.

“Thanks, but I don’t need any diet/nutrition advice. I’m all set!”

“Yeah, I’m not interested in talking about food in those terms. So please don’t do it with me.”

5. In response to someone talking to you about their own diet/ food restrictions for changing their own body size.

“I’m working on making peace with my body currently, so I don’t think I’m the right person with whom to discuss these things.”

“Yeah, that diet sounds pretty difficult and unsatisfying. I’ll pass!”

Again, I know that these phrases might not work exactly for every fatphobic conversation or comment you might encounter at your holiday gatherings, but hopefully, one or two of them could be helpful in setting some clear boundaries with your friends and family members.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Mindful Eating vs. Intuitive Eating

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In one of my recent blogs, I mentioned in passing that mindful eating and intuitive eating are different concepts, a topic that I am circling back to now because I frequently meet new patients who mistakenly believe they are synonymous.

Intuitive eating is an approach that leans upon our body’s internal cues and uses them to drive decisions regarding what, when, and how much to eat. People who eat intuitively generally use sensations of hunger and fullness to determine when to eat and the quantity of food to consume at a given time, and they may utilize a series of matching questions to determine which foods are going to best hit the spot. (Note the words “generally” and “may,” which I have included to reflect that intuitive eating is a set of guidelines that one can use to the extent that they find helpful, not a set of rules that must always be followed.)

Mindful eating, on the other hand, is broader and simply entails paying attention to one’s eating. Intuitive eating falls under the umbrella of mindful eating, but plenty of other versions of mindful eating exist. For example, one could mindfully portion out their dinner as they carefully strive to stay within the day’s points budget. One could be mindful of the texture and flavor of their Halo Top while wishing it were Ben & Jerry’s. One could mindfully savor every bite of their 100-calorie snack pack while knowing they are hungry for more food than they are going to allow themselves to have.

One must be mindful in order to notice internal cues, but one can be mindful of other things while completely ignoring what their bodies are telling them. In other words, one can eat mindfully without eating intuitively, but one cannot eat intuitively without eating mindfully.

If you have thought to yourself that you wish you ate more mindfully, consider looking deeper to discover what it is that you are ultimately hoping to achieve. If weight loss is the motivation, then mindful eating is likely just code for dieting, an attempt to put a rosier package around restriction while the contents remain the same. On the other hand, if recovering from disordered eating or establishing a more peaceful and healthy relationship with food is the goal, then intuitive eating specifically – not mindful eating in general – is the path forward.

So, what exactly do future dietitians do at a dietetic internship?

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Just a few months after passing my exam to officially become a registered dietitian (RD), one of my former professors asked me to come back to the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) to talk with some of her nutrition students about my training and the process of becoming an RD. At one point, she asked me to talk about my dietetic internship. While I have no idea what I said, she could tell that I was holding back, and she interjected and assured me it was okay to be candid. So I gave it to them straight: My internship was the worst year of my life.

Before I get to why the experience was so horrible and what I learned during it, first let me introduce what a dietetic internship is and how it fits in with a budding RD’s training. Somewhat similar to a medical residency, a dietetic internship is a bridge between school and becoming a full-fledged healthcare practitioner. Unlike school, where students study concepts in an academic setting, internships provide hands-on opportunities to perform the roles of a dietitian while under supervision. Only after finishing their schooling can one begin an internship, and only after satisfactorily completing their internship can one sit for the exam to become an RD. The internship, in another words, is a required step in the career path.

Applicants indicate the programs they are interested in and rank them in order of preference, the internship programs themselves similarly rank their applicants, and then a computer figures out the matches. Placement in an internship is not a guarantee – one statistic that I read estimates that only 60% of applicants each year are matched to an internship –  and I remember classmates who applied multiple times without ever receiving a match. No internship means no career as a registered dietitian, a reality that I feel should have been mentioned at the beginning – rather than towards the end – of nutrition school so students would have adequate time to formulate a plan B. The computer matched me to Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), which I had listed as my first choice.

Internships typically include rotations in clinical care, community nutrition, and food service settings, but the exact composition varies from program to program. For example, one of the internships I know of has an added focus on business while mine emphasized medical nutrition therapy. Each setting includes multiple rotations that give an intern a chance to perform a variety of duties in a range of settings. Most of my rotations took place at BIDMC, but some were off site in the surrounding community.

 

Food Service Management

My internship began with a rotation in food service management, which had me working in the hospital’s cafeteria. My tasks ranged from culinary duties, such as learning how to efficiently chop vegetables and then applying these skills by dicing about 60 pounds of winter squash, to studying the technical specifications of various pieces of industrial kitchen equipment. At no point in my career have I ever needed to know the details of the Alto-Shaam Combitherm Model 12-18ESG flash-steam combination oven/steamer, but for a few weeks of my life, I could have told you all about it.

They told me to spend an hour working one of the cafeteria registers. After about 45 minutes, I had developed a whole new appreciation for cashiers and the pain and degradation that they tolerate. While ringing up purchases and processing payments was straightforward, the boredom and rude customers led me to conclude that there is no way I would last long doing checkout.

One of my tasks was to design and implement a nutrition promotion in the cafeteria. For whatever reason, I chose lycopene, a chemical compound found in some fruits and vegetables, so I put together table tents, a PowerPoint presentation that I projected on a cafeteria wall, and other educational materials for our customers. Additionally, I created special menu options high in lycopene, such as stuffed red bell peppers and cherry tomatoes, to coincide with the day.

While I enjoyed the food service courses that I took in nutrition school, my food service management rotation was unpleasant and awkward. In no way do I look down upon people who perform manual labor, nor am I above doing such work myself; when I worked as a personal trainer, I spent extra hours at the gym washing towels, mopping floors, and wiping down equipment, and I found pride, enjoyment, and satisfaction in maintaining a clean and orderly environment for our members. But the interpersonal dynamics at the hospital were based on a hierarchical structure, even in the kitchen, which suggested not so subtly that some jobs – and therefore some people – were more important than others when in reality they are all necessary for the hospital to properly function. Shadowing a line cook for a few hours so he could teach me about his job before I moved along to more “important” duties while he continued to make food felt like disrespectful cosplay, which did not sit well with me.

Being an intern, I was considered pretty far down the pecking order myself. On the day of my special menu, my preceptor got mad at me because the menu ingredient list read cherry tomatoes while the dish that she assumed was mine contained chopped tomatoes. As she was laying into me, I realized that the discrepancy involved a different dish, one that was not part of my special, and the ingredient list for my entree was in fact accurate. She did apologize, but the incident illustrated her general attitude towards interns and her employees, which was to pass judgment before having an understanding of a given situation or behavior and to hold a default presumption that those under her were inept.

 

Patient Food Service

Lucky for me, my patient food service rotation was at a different BIDMC campus, and my preceptor this time around was great. She welcomed questions, invited my input, and even gave me her home telephone number so I could call her while she was out of the office if I needed something.

My duties included putting together patient meals, checking the trays against their order forms to ensure accuracy, and delivering the food. The room service associate – the job title for the people who deliver food to patient rooms – that I shadowed was great and demonstrated how to appropriately address the patients. Knock on the door, even if it is wide open, to alert the patient that someone is coming. If a medical professional or a visitor is present, discreetly and quietly leave the tray on the bedside stand. Otherwise, greet the patient and quickly leave unless they have questions or comments. Such guidelines may or may not seem obvious, but as someone who had never worked in a hospital before, I was grateful that she took the time to teach me proper etiquette.

As an intern, I was required to dress business casual and wear a white lab coat no matter what I was doing, even when I was delivering trays. Consequently, patients often seemed confused when I walked in wearing a lab coat and carrying a tray of food. On at least one occasion, someone mistook me for a doctor. The confusion was so immediate that some patients were already perplexed by the time I could identify myself as from the food services.

While working in the “nourishment kitchen” processing and preparing patient supplement orders, I sampled each supplement myself on the advice of my supervisor, as she felt that it was important for me to have tried them so that I could relate to the patients who needed to take them. Patients occasionally asked me for advice regarding which supplement flavor to choose, and I also noticed their moods improve when they complained about a given supplement and I was able to empathize because I had tried the same drink myself. Had I not sampled the supplements, these quality patient interactions would not have taken place.

Another series of taste tests involved ordering trays for myself as I tried to put myself in the position of patients who were on special diets. Selecting a complete and satisfying meal while satisfying the constraints of a strict sodium restriction was difficult, almost as challenging as consuming pureed turkey and broccoli and thickened orange juice.

One of my tasks was to interview 20 patients on various hospital floors about the food. The opinions tended to be a matter of perspective. Generally speaking, those who evaluated the BIDMC food in relation to other institutional food spoke very highly of it, while those who compared it to restaurant food were typically disappointed. While I found it interesting to hear what patients had to say about the food, the part of the experience from which I learned the most was simply talking with them. As one patient told me when I asked him about the food, “I have bigger things to worry about than the food,” pointing to a surgical scar and tubes protruding from various places in his body.

 

Clinical Care

Shortly after finishing my internship, I called a colleague whom I had met during the experience to discuss the next step in my career. Referencing the tradition that new dietitians are supposed to pay their dues by working in a clinical setting before moving on to other areas of employment, I told him, “I know I am supposed to work in clinical, but . . .” “Stop right there,” he said, cutting me off. He went on to explain how outdated and nonsensical this tradition is, as clinical work has little to do with other areas of nutrition. He was right.

The three things I like to do that are the reason I decided to pursue a career in dietetics are getting to know patients, talking about food, and facilitating long-term behavior change, yet rarely does a dietitian do any of them in a clinical setting. Forget getting to know patients, as mine were often asleep, sedated, or otherwise unable to communicate, and my interactions with them were typically limited to entering their rooms and gathering whatever data I needed from their bedside medical devices and their chart notes. Forget talking about food, as my patients were frequently unable to eat and were instead relying on nutrition via enteral (i.e., a tube or port into the gastrointestinal tract) or parenteral (i.e., a line directly into the blood stream) feedings. And forget facilitating long-term behavior change, as the goal was almost always just to get the patient well enough for discharge.

My clinical rotations took place at BIDMC, Boston Children’s Hospital, Somerville Hospital, and the Youville Hospital and Rehabilitation Center. The only memory that stands out to me regarding the last two rotations is that I remember eating lunch with one of my preceptors and commenting that I appreciated her sitting with me, as we were specifically told not to eat lunch with the BIDMC clinical dietitians, who did not want to sit with their interns. She told me that those dietitians should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.

Generally speaking, my duties at BIDMC, whether I was in the ICU, the transplant ward, or another unit, entailed gathering data from a patient’s medical chart – particularly their lab work – and then using it to make recommendations regarding their nutrition prescription. Patients who were eating, but still needed some nutrition support, typically saw a diet technician, who could offer some suggestions regarding supplements, such as Ensure. In contrast, RDs and we dietetic interns treated sicker patients who were usually not eating and instead needed the aforementioned enteral or parenteral (TPN) methods of nutrient intake. TPN formulations often required daily tweaking depending on a patient’s labs, so I would look at their blood results, come up with my recommendations, run them by my preceptor, and then call down to the pharmacy and direct them as to how to construct the composition of that patient’s TPN mix for the day. Sometimes I also made recommendations for supplementation, like banana flakes for a C. diff infection or zinc for a pressure ulcer. This is where I learned that giving too much zinc for too long can create a copper deficiency, as the two minerals compete for absorption.

Some specific moments stand out in my memory, such as the time I was present for a tracheotomy, which was way bloodier in real life than on television. As I was backing away from the patient for fear that I was about to faint, the doctor told me, “Don’t be shy, get right in there!” Another day, I arrived to find the unit abuzz with many of the nurses and residents giggling and talking quietly to each other. After asking around, I learned that they were readying to squirt warm maple syrup up a patient’s butt.

Other standout memories are humorless, like the time I was working in the ICU and went to assess a patient, but their nurse told me not to bother, as they were unlikely to survive the day. The last patient that I ever treated while I was an intern had terminal cancer and was barely eating. She quietly responded to my suggestions, none of which would have made any sort of meaningful difference. They never prepared us for how to respond to death or to talk with patients who were on its verge and their families. We were left to come up with the answers ourselves, and I am quite certain mine were lacking.

My rotation at Boston Children’s Hospital was perhaps the most miserable stretch of the internship, largely because I was directed to treat patients right off the bat before I felt I had a solid enough understanding of pediatric care. The dietitians acted like we interns were an annoyance and a disruption to their work – which, granted, we probably were, but that was not our fault – and questions often did not go over well. My preceptor seemed generally bitter about her situation, as she really wanted to be a doctor, but settled for becoming an RD because she did not think she could handle medical school. Her story was not unique, as I met quite a few dietitians working in clinical settings who wanted to be doing something else. It reminded me of freshman orientation at Tufts University, a place to which I had applied early action because it was the only college I wanted to go to, and I was surprised by how many of my peers were disappointed to be there, as Tufts was their safety school that they had to fall back on after failing to get in any of the Ivies.

As was the case in nutrition school, we got very little eating disorder training during the internship. One of my rare exposures occurred at Children’s, as I remember shadowing a dietitian who was gently trying to convince an anorexic girl to drink some milk. The girl – wearing a thick sweatshirt because her body’s metabolism had slowed so much that she was not producing adequate heat – was bawling.

A major source of my frustration was writing chart notes. The documenting itself, which at this time was still typically done by hand, was not the issue. Rather, the problem was that each of my preceptors wrote notes differently, yet each of them felt strongly that their way was the singular right way. Each time my clinical preceptor changed, they would initially be disgusted by my notes, and by the time I adjusted and was documenting to their liking, it would be time to switch preceptors and the cycle repeated. For example, one of my preceptors co-signed one of my notes and told me “very good.” My next preceptor looked at that same exact note and told me she would not have agreed to sign it. Then I modeled my notes after her own, but my next preceptor looked at them and tore them apart, including calling them grammatically incorrect, which they certainly were not. Sometimes they allowed me to cross out and initialize the words or passages they wanted rephrased, but they were not always so generous. One time, I remember having to stay late to copy over an entire page-long note because my preceptor took issue with literally one word. “Different” is not synonymous with “wrong,” but try telling that to these people.

Furthermore, now that I am a practicing dietitian, it turns out that how I write my notes does not matter. Nobody cares. The insurance companies who occasionally request my notes as part of their decision-making process for determining coverage do not care, and the doctors – who rarely read the notes that I send them – definitely do not care.

Criticizing our note-writing skills was just one of their ways of giving us a hard time and treating us as less than. The BIDMC clinical units had a class system with doctors at the top of the hierarchy, RDs somewhere behind nurses (hence the derogatory nickname for dietitians, “Jello ladies”) and dietetic interns even lower. Having a power structure makes sense in some contexts – if a patient codes, knowing who is in charge and what each person’s responsibilities are streamlines care and saves precious time – but other times it is counterproductive. Pushing people down is a lost opportunity to gain their insight, which in a healthcare setting means worse patient care. One of my fellow interns described our experience as being similar to pledging a sorority, and just like with pledges joining Greek life or rookies on a sports team, hazing and treating the new folks with disrespect has never made any sense to me.

Around the time of my rotation at Children’s, I realized how depressed I had become since starting the internship, particularly its clinical portion. My morning commute consisted of taking the 51 bus from my West Roxbury apartment to Reservoir, then taking the green line to the Longwood Medical Area, and it got to the point where I legitimately hoped my bus crashed so I did not have to go to work. Rationally, I knew that of course the internship would eventually finish, but my heart felt differently, as I could not see myself making it through to the end. It was at this point that I knew I needed therapy.

 

Outpatient Counseling

After my clinical rotations were over, things began looking up. A new calendar year began and suddenly the internship’s June end date felt attainable. Around this time, I also met Joanne. (People assume we met through dietetics, but that is not the case; it was just coincidence that we were both in the same field.) Also of significance, this is when my outpatient counseling rotations – which were my favorite rotations of the entire internship – began. For the first time in a long while, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In my medical nutrition therapy rotation, I worked closely with BIDMC’s outpatient dietitian, who counseled patients with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver disease, and other ailments. One of the aspects of this rotation that I most appreciated was that I had a chance to observe her before I began to counsel patients myself. Given that I only had one counseling course in nutrition school, I valued the chance to learn more, especially from someone as seasoned as she was. It was from her that I learned that a dietitian can be simultaneously informal and professional, that keeping the vibe of an appointment relaxed can help patients feel more at ease.

When we were not in the clinic, we went out into the community on a roving healthcare van that stopped in some of the more impoverished areas of the city. We gave out condoms, took blood pressure readings and blood sugar checks, and answered nutrition questions for anybody who stopped by, all for free. The only specific nutrition discussion I can remember having with someone pertained to the sodium content of her favorite spice mix. During our breaks, my preceptor took me around the neighborhoods to visit restaurants, food pantries, and grocery stores. We talked with some of the regulars who relied on the pantries, and I was struck by the realization that food insecurity is not some abstract notion in textbooks or a relic of a bygone era, but rather a present challenge for many people in our own city.

One of my other outpatient rotations was with a BIDMC dietitian who specialized in Celiac disease and food allergies. As part of this rotation, I – along with one of my fellow interns – wrote the elimination diet manual that BIDMC went on to use, although I imagine they have long since replaced it with an updated version.

The bariatric clinic had two outpatient dietitians that I shadowed for a week, but I remember little of what went on there. They arranged for me to observe a lap band fill, and I also remember watching a Roux-en-Y bypass surgery being broadcast live to a monitor outside the operating room. One specific memory I have is of waking up and realizing I had just fallen asleep while sitting in on a counseling session. Both the dietitian and patient noticed. I was super embarrassed, but they were kind about it. After the appointment, the dietitian gently told me that I needed to figure out how to get more sleep. An aspect of the internship that I had not anticipated was just how much work we would have to do after hours. Typically, I woke up early, spent the day at the hospital – or wherever my particular rotation was – went to the gym, then stayed up very late reading, researching, or doing whatever other tasks I had to handle. The hours were certainly nothing like the legendary marathon shifts that medical residents work, but they were exhausting nonetheless and took a cumulative toll.

For another week, I got to spend time shadowing dietitians at the Joslin Diabetes Center. This was a fantastic experience. The nurses, doctors, exercise physiologists, and dietitians treated each other with a level of mutual respect that was absent at BIDMC. The staff did an excellent job of putting themselves in the patients’ shoes and empathizing with how scared and confused some of them were. Counselors often spent extra time with them and told them to call or email anytime with additional questions. This is how outpatient counseling is meant to be, I thought, and I have done my best to follow their example.

 

Research

Given my experience and interest in research, I was looking forward to my rotation in BIDMC’s general research center. We implemented the eating protocols for whatever nutrition-related studies happened to be taking place there at the time. One morning, they let me try the metabolic hood, an indirect calorimetry device that covers the subject’s head like a motorcycle helmet and uses their oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output to estimate their resting metabolic rate.

A few months after the internship was over, I applied for and subsequently accepted a research position at another general research center in Boston. Before starting the job though, I came to realize that while I do like research, it is not my passion, and my heart was really in counseling. I felt awful rescinding my acceptance, as I knew I was putting the research center in a tough spot and harming my own reputation, but it was the right call.

 

Plan-Your-Own Rotations

For two weeks, we were left to plan our own rotations in subject areas where we wanted additional experience. Having performed statistical analyses for a professor in the Tufts University nutrition school when I was an undergraduate at the university, I reached out to her to see if I could do any similar work for her as one of my plan-your-own rotations. Looking back at my files from the rotation, I see a bunch of charts and graphs that I put together for her, but I have no idea what the subject matter was.

Given my background as a personal trainer, I wondered if I might have a future working at a health club doing both training and nutrition counseling, so I sought out a dietitian who had that exact job and shadowed her as my other plan-your-own rotation. Two specific memories stand out to me. The first was when she offered to counsel me, just as she would one of her clients, so I could get a sense of how she practiced, and she food shamed me for eating dessert. The experience made me realize how harmful judgment is and how fear of it can understandably inspire patients to misrepresent their eating as a defense, as I was certainly tempted to lie to her going forward after seeing how she reacted to my reported dessert. The second stand-out memory is of an argument she had with a woman in one of her group fitness classes. The woman insisted that she was following the meal plan that the dietitian had given her, while the dietitian insisted that she was lying because if she was truly following the meal plan, she would be losing weight, which she was not. The argument was uncomfortable to witness, and I felt badly for the woman. When I later learned about Health at Every Size, I remembered this argument as an example of the trouble that can arise when we think we have more control over body weight than we actually do.

 

Community Nutrition

One of my community nutrition rotations was with ABCD Head Start. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no recollection of this experience other than seeing one of the workers get reprimanded for bringing Reese’s peanut butter cups into the nut-free facility.

The other rotation was with Boston Public Schools. My main tasks were to create educational materials, such as bulletin board materials and newsletters, for students and their families. The administrative office was a very casual environment, and I remember my preceptor and her colleagues giving me advice regarding how to approach Valentine’s Day with Joanne, as they felt I had to walk a fine line between not being dismissive of the holiday yet not coming on too strong given that we had only been dating for about a month at that point. Like a true intern, I was sent to get coffee for my preceptor, who once playfully slapped me for writing material for a bulletin board by hand instead of printing it out.

 

Class Days

We spent Tuesdays through Fridays at our rotations, but Mondays were our class days. The eight of us BIDMC interns would get together – sometimes by ourselves, and sometimes with other interns from the area – to spend the day learning about a given subject. We spent one day learning about mindful eating (which, by the way, is not synonymous with intuitive eating, although I suppose that is a topic for a different blog) and another about pediatrics. A dietitian from Gatorade came to talk with us about sports nutrition. One of the hospital’s gastroenterologists taught us about, well, gastroenterology. We spent a day at the Army’s research facility in Natick learning about field rations. The other class day topics escape me, but there were certainly more.

Along the way, each of us had to give presentations of our own to the class. Inspired by my visits to Native American reservations during my cross-country bicycle ride, one of my research projects looked at the dietary patterns of the residents of these reservations. Another one of my research projects looked at how other populations around the world treat constipation, which is how I learned about Pajala porridge and that people in the southern hemisphere use kiwifruit the same way that we use prunes. Looking at my notes, I see that I had started research for a presentation on competitive eaters and how they are able to hold so much food in their bodies at once, but apparently I abandoned the topic for some reason. One of the other interns and I gave a joint presentation on VACTERL association, which I had to Google just now to remember what it is.

 

In the end . . .

This has been a difficult blog to write. Generally speaking, these are not happy memories. The stress, the exhaustion, and the frequent disrespect made for a difficult year in which I did not learn as much about nutrition as I expected.

Additionally, I was angry – mad at the internship for not being what I wanted it to be, and mad at myself for putting myself in this situation. During the application process, internship directors were telling me that due to my strong resume and being a minority in a female-dominated field, I could go to any internship that I wanted, that it was up to me to decide where I wanted to be. Because of the geographic constraints I put on myself and by process of elimination, I ended up at BIDMC, which was supposedly one of the most prestigious programs in the country, but in hindsight, it was not the right one for me.

At the same time, I hesitate to go so far as to say I regret having gone there. Changing any element of the past would result in a different present than the one I have now. As I stated both before and during the internship, I wanted to be an outpatient counselor, and now that is what I do. While I might not have enjoyed my time at BIDMC, it is part of the route that got me here.

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.

Bee Bo Bumps

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It’s hard to believe it, but our daughter, Lorelai, turned four this month. They weren’t kidding when someone said, “The days are long, but the years go by fast!” Watching this little person grow and learn has been amazing, and I am constantly finding myself looking at her with a mixture of awe and adoration. It is the coolest thing to see how her brain starts to put things together, how she reacts to certain situations, and how she approaches pretty much every experience from a place of innocence and openness.

I was a fan of the author Sandra Boynton growing up, and I knew that I wanted to introduce Lorelai to her work early on. Luckily, I was able to find numerous board books that Boynton has created which have delightful pictures and silly and sweet words to go with them. One of our favorite books is called Belly Button Book! This delightfully colorful book follows a group of hippos that love their belly buttons and are happy to display them in any which way they can. The hippos make sure their belly buttons are front and center during the summer, showing them off at Belly Button Beach and singing the belly button song on warm summer nights. The youngest of the hippos calls the belly button a “Bee Bo!” and repeats this word throughout the book. Obviously, this book has become such a favorite in our house, and we have read it hundreds of times over the past four years.

As a result of reading this book over and over, Jonah and I started referring to our own belly buttons as “bee bos,” and Lorelai picked this up as well. Aside from the obvious adorableness factor, it’s been interesting to see how lovingly Lorelai looks at her own belly button and ours as well. Prior to having a child, I was reluctant to show my belly to others. I don’t remember ever owning a two-piece bathing suit, but I do remember being taught that having a round tummy was not okay. From a very early age, I figured out that flat bellies are better than round bellies, and if you don’t have a flat belly, you better keep it covered. Through my adolescence and much of my early adulthood, I was very self-conscious of my belly and would wear clothes that didn’t accentuate it in any way. To this day, my knee-jerk reaction to someone touching my belly is to flinch initially. But I’ve noticed a shift in my belly thoughts since having Lorelai.

One of Lorelai’s favorite things to do is stick out her stomach as far as she can as she admires her belly. She lovingly strokes it and tells me and/or Jonah to look at it. Of course, we “ooh” and “aah” and tell her how adorable her bee bo is. At some point, she wanted to see what our bee bos looked like as well, so we started showing them to her. At first, I felt some hesitation with doing this as it went against my “no bellies see daylight” mantra, but eventually, I was able to display my belly to her without issue. Lorelai loves touching her belly to our bellies and giving us “bee bo bumps,” and it always makes her giggle with glee.

Just watching her face light up and her absolute delight in her belly has been really eye-opening for me. I don’t ever want her to feel ashamed of her body. I want her to see her body as an amazing part of her. I want her to be able to appreciate the body she has and all that it can do. I also want her to be able to recognize that she is not her body, and that there is so much more to her than just her physical body. I am continuing to work on healing my own relationship with my body, and I really strive to show Lorelai that all bodies are good bodies; ergo, all bee bos are good bee bos. I aim to never speak ill of my body in her presence and to be kinder to myself, especially when I am having a bad body image day. I know that kids learn how to hate their bodies by watching their parents hate their own bodies, and I don’t want that to happen in our house. I just hope she can continue to find the wonder and beauty in her body and that it won’t be taken away from her as she gets older. So to that end I will continue to show my belly when Lorelai asks and to give her as many bee bo bumps as she desires.

The Buffet: An Intuitive Eater’s Playground

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Out of all the situations that my patients find challenging, the buffet is the one they most commonly mention. No wonder that they do, as buffets are laden with many of the dynamics that can be tricky for budding intuitive eaters. Another way of looking at the matter is to think of buffets not as tests or proving grounds, but rather as playgrounds: a place to practice, have fun, and figure out which elements of intuitive eating might benefit from further work.

Consider the following factors and how you can use buffets to examine the role that they might be playing in your eating.

Quantity: As far as I can recall, every buffet I have gone to has been of the all-you-can-eat format without any external constraints to limit how much I ate. For people who are used to leaning on outside forces to put a cap on their quantity consumed – such as a restaurant’s serving size, the mound that mom puts on their plate, or a 100-calorie snack pack – buffets can leave them feeling lost and unsure when to stop. Some patients shy away from buffets for this reason, but I suggest instead running straight for them, as they present fantastic opportunities to practice recognizing and honoring our fullness cues. After all, without any external cues telling us when to stop, we have no choice but to look inward at our body’s cues to make the decision.

Cost: If you are a fan of the Phantom Gourmet, you have likely seen The Nordic Lodge featured several times over the years. Joanne and I went once several years ago to see what the fuss was about, and it certainly was an interesting experience. The adult admission price was lower than the current $125.00-per-person fee when we went, but it was certainly still expensive, and I found myself feeling anxious about making sure I got my money’s worth. Then I reminded myself that the entry fee was a sunk cost whether I stopped when I was comfortably full, made myself sick, or anywhere in between. Eating to the point of feeling physically gross was not going to somehow enhance the experience or make me feel differently about the money we spent. That is just me though, and I am not suggesting that there is a right or wrong answer here, as some people might indeed feel more positive about their overall experience if they leave a buffet feeling like they ate their money’s worth; but it is interesting to examine in real time how cost might be influencing your eating behavior.

Rarities: If you have attended The Langham Hotel’s chocolate buffet, you know that they do not allow doggy bags. Although our waiter did once discreetly slip me some extra napkins so I could wrap up a piece of pastry to take home, their official stance is you either eat the food there or you do not eat it at all. Feeling a pull to take advantage of a now-or-never, or at least a now-or-wait-a-long-time-for-another-opportunity, situation to eat something can be an example of beckoning. Even though some patients feel that eating in response to beckoning is a negative behavior, I disagree and feel it is a morally neutral action that is neither good nor bad. As I discussed in a previous blog, simply having an awareness of whether we are eating in response to humming or beckoning has its upsides, and there may be no better place to ask ourselves this question than at a buffet you rarely attend or may never go to again.

Scarcity: My college dining hall was an all-you-can-eat buffet format, but they nevertheless still ran out of the most popular foods sometimes. Although I cannot recall any specific examples, I know there were certain desserts that would run out quickly relative to the others. Whenever they were on the day’s menu, the race was on to get some before the other students finished it all. Looking back, I am certain there were days that I chose something not because I genuinely wanted it, but because I felt a competitive drive to get it before it was gone. Next time you are at a buffet and you spy an item that is running low, consider how your selection may or may not differ if the quantity were bountiful.

Dichotomies: One of my patients told me that when they were young and attended buffets with their parents, they sometimes tried to sneak extra quantities of “bad” food when their parents could not see them, such as taking some and eating it before they got back to the table. Some people feel compelled to balance out their intake of “bad” food by forcing themselves to take some “good” food too whether they really feel like having the latter or not. In reality, the dichotomies that people believe regarding food – whether they are good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, clean/unclean, etc. – have much less to do with science and more to do with the way we impose principles of spirituality on our eating. Buffets can be a great place to examine the role that such a dichotomy may be playing in your food choices.

Comparisons: Going back to our Nordic Lodge experience, I clearly remember looking around at other diners and their plates because I was curious to see how others were approaching the buffet. Some people take things a step farther by comparing their own eating to others. Such comparisons might be the basis for someone to feel virtuous or guilty about their own food choices. Beyond that, sometimes we might use the behavior of others as a determinant of the permission we give ourselves. For example, maybe we are considering going back for a third plate of food, but we do not give ourselves the green light until someone else in the party does it first, and if they never do, then we deny ourselves.

While buffets can feel triggering, they can be great playgrounds for practicing and developing our intuitive eating skills. Instead of shying away from the challenge, lean into it and have fun!

No Nutritional Value?

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People sometimes use the phrase “no nutritional value” to demean certain foods or to flagellate themselves or someone else for having consumed one of them. Whenever someone speaks these words, I curiously wonder: Do they mean the phrase literally or figuratively? Either way is problematic, unfortunately, and is indicative of room for growth in their relationship with food.

If someone perceives that a food literally has no nutritional value, chances are high that they are factually incorrect. Anything we eat that contains at least one macronutrient (carbohydrate, fat, protein, water, or alcohol) or micronutrient (vitamin or mineral) has – by definition – nutritional value. Check out a food’s nutrition label, and if you see any numbers other than zeros, you know it has nutritional value. Even if you see zeros across the board, unlisted nutrients are still likely present, or perhaps the quantities are low enough that labeling laws allow for rounding down to zero. Sitting here now, I am hard-pressed to think of even a single example of an edible entity that has literally no nutritional value.

Besides, criticizing a food for having little or none of a particular nutrient implies that other foods with higher concentrations of it are somehow superior, but this is not necessarily true. Some nutrients have a tolerable upper limit, which is the “maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects.” For example, consuming too much zinc can cause a copper deficiency, as the two minerals compete for absorption. People have died from drinking so much water that their blood’s sodium concentration became perilously low. Vitamin A toxicity, which can also be fatal, can arise from eating just a single serving of polar bear liver.

Even if we consider smaller quantities, ones not large enough to seriously risk our health, consuming too much can prove useless. Purchase a supplement with a high concentration of B vitamins and note how your urine turns neon yellow, which results from our bodies expelling the excess vitamins it cannot use. (Insert here your own joke about flushing your money down the toilet.) Taking in a large amount of calcium at once does little good for our bones, as our bodies are limited in how much they can absorb at a time. The bottom line is that more does not always imply better or healthier.

Having said that, I know that most people who say “no nutritional value” do not mean it literally, but rather as an expression of how they deduce foods, ingredients, and nutrients into moral hierarchies. For example, someone may tell me pasta has no nutritional value because they see carbohydrates as inferior to protein. Another person may claim that butter has no nutritional value because they look down upon its high fat concentration. Yet another patient may say that juice has no nutritional value because their demonization of sugar blinds them from appreciating the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other nutrients swimming around in the beverage.

People are often hard on themselves or feel anxious for eating foods that they perceive as having no nutritional value, which hinders their ability to eat intuitively. Recognizing our body’s signals can sometimes be challenging enough even without guilt and stress complicating matters and clouding the picture. One of my patients described the situation to me with a simile, saying it is like playing a sport and straining to focus on what the coach is saying while other people on the sidelines loudly yell conflicting advice. Similarly, if we feel virtuous for eating a food that we perceive to have nutritional value, we might be at risk for blocking out signals from our body that the food is not actually hitting the spot.

See if this common scenario feels familiar. You are in the midst of eating a food that you perceive to have “no nutritional value.” Even though you can tell you are getting full, you decide to keep eating it because you figure today is ruined anyway, so you might as well finish it all so it is no longer in the house, and you can start fresh tomorrow. Here is another situation that might ring true. You are craving a specific food, but since you feel it has “no nutritional value,” you try to satisfy the craving with an alternative version that you believe has a better nutrition profile. Since the latter does not quite hit the spot though, you consume more of it in an attempt to make up for lack of pleasure with quantity. Still not satisfied, you try other foods. Your grazing may eventually encompass eating the food that you craved in the first place. Now you feel stuffed and maybe guilty, whereas if you had allowed yourself to consume the object of your desire in the first place, you could have had a more enjoyable and peaceful eating experience and then gotten on with your day.

When I was in nutrition school, I used to modify my cookie recipes in an attempt to make them “healthier.” It took me a long time to understand why I tended to eat so many of these modified creations in one sitting, but eventually I realized it was because these cookies – which were more akin to high-fiber pancakes than actual cookies – were not hitting the spot. That is not a knock against pancakes, which are of course fine, but they do not fill a cookie-shaped hole as well as the real thing. Once I came to understand what was happening, I abandoned those modified recipes and returned to the original. Instead of having a whole pile of the “healthier” but less satisfying versions, I would have a couple of real cookies, feel satisfied, and be done.

If any of what you have read here resonates with your own thought patterns or experiences, ask yourself this: How might my own eating change if I abandon the flawed notion that some foods have “no nutritional value”?

My Fat Knee

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About a month ago, I hyperextended my right knee while lying in bed. As a result of this (and a history of knee problems that I’ve had for the past decade or so), I had a very bad flare-up of osteoarthritis. I wish that I could say that I had injured myself doing something much more fun or exciting, but I guess when you are in your 40s, this stuff starts happening to you. Interestingly, aside from the initial sharp pain and chronic aching that ensued for several weeks, I noticed that I had some other feelings as well. The usual feelings of sadness and frustration were present of course, but there was something else too: panic.

When I tried to think about why I might be feeling panic in this situation, I had to wade through a lot of things: history, past trauma, hurt, and fear. Since I have always been in a fat body (although at times it has been straight size through restriction and overexercise), I have had a troubled relationship with medical professionals. Starting from a very young age, I became aware that my larger body was something problematic and to be feared. I have very early memories of feeling ashamed of my body whenever I would be weighed at the pediatrician’s office. I remember my pediatrician warning my mother about my weight percentile on my growth charts, and in turn she would turn her concern into “let’s fix this” mode, keeping an eye on my eating and monitoring my portions. I remember being weighed in my kindergarten class, and everyone’s weights were listed next to their names on the chalkboard, so everyone knew where they “ranked” in body size. I was the heaviest girl, of course.

As I got older, my fraught relationship with medical professionals continued. When I entered my late teens, I switched over from my childhood pediatrician to a family physician who was also a family friend. At one point, I believe he treated at least four of my five nuclear family members. And every year, I would dread going to see him as I knew that my weight would be brought up as an issue.  Of course, there were a few years when I had lost weight that I looked forward to going to the doctor as I knew that I would receive praise and encouragement to keep going (never mind that what I was doing to lose the weight could qualify as an eating disorder). But even occasional weight loss didn’t stop me from feeling anxiety when going to the doctor. Because I knew that my body was still “wrong.”

When I found Health at Every Size (HAES), I felt like I could finally breathe for the first time. At last, here was a paradigm that welcomed my body and encouraged me to take good care of it, no matter what size I was. I stopped my periods of dieting and worked on improving my relationship with food and my body. I found a physician who is weight-inclusive and treats me as a whole entity, not just my weight. I learned how to advocate for myself in medical situations when my weight would be brought up as an issue. I have helped countless patients navigate their own troubled waters of medical weight stigma. I have been in therapy for many years and continue to work on these issues as they arise.

But despite all of this work I have done and continue to do, most medical situations result in that pit-in-my-stomach feeling. I flash back to the decades where I was taught that my ailments or injuries were due to my weight and that feeling of shame and embarrassment that would wash over my face when a doctor would give me the “weight lecture.” All of those years of hearing that my fat body was to blame for almost anything negative occurring to it sunk in deep and etched into my brain. So whenever I have a medical situation, whether it is slightly elevated cholesterol in my lipid panel, a knee injury, or sleep issues, my knee-jerk reaction is to brace for the inevitable “weight lecture.” Never mind that I have found the unicorn of PCPs who not only understands and practices through a HAES lens, but also lives in a larger body herself which makes her even more empathetic. I know that my PCP’s office is a safe space and that my fat body will be treated with care and respect.

And even with all of this knowledge, the past trauma that I have received around my body in medical settings is still present. It makes me sad and also makes me incredibly angry. I think about all of my patients who have been through similar experiences with their healthcare providers. I think about the fact that I hold a lot of privilege (being small-medium fat, white, cis gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.) and that those who don’t hold those privileges are treated as less than at best and are downright abused at worst in these medical settings.

It is really enough to make me feel very cynical and jaded about the medical profession as a whole, and as a result, I am hesitant to seek out medical care. But despite this, I know that the only way things are going to change in our medical system is if enough of us stand up and refuse to be treated this way. The more patients that I can help to advocate for themselves in medical settings, the more doctors I can try to educate about the harms of weight stigma, and the more that I can speak up in moments of witnessed weight stigma (along with racism, homophobia, and a plethora of other abuses), the more I feel I can somehow make a difference, even if it is just for one person.