Nutrition


Seems like a silly question, no? We live in an era where information is available within a few keystrokes, and certainly, the Internet is rife with health and fitness info.

And yet, people are confused. The fact is, there are so many contradictory and/or vague recommendations out in the ether that the overall impression is that no one really knows anything.

A study by Rebekah Nagler (reference below), published in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, highlights this problem. Nagler determined that in the face of too much contradictory information, consumers understandably get confused and as a result ignore not only the contradictions — since they can’t figure out which is correct — but also the long-standing well-documented information, such as increasing intake of vegetables and some fruits. Presenting contradictions destroys the credibility of all recommendations.

And if you think that scientists don’t truly know what’s healthy and what’s not, the news media exacerbates the confusion. Science writing leaves a lot to be desired, and editors often present an over-processed, over-simplified explanation of study results, topped off with sensational headlines. People, this isn’t entertainment. This is science. But in the race for “likes”, media outlets want to reel in as many viewers/readers as possible.

So let’s extrapolate a bit to weight loss recommendations, a hot topic these days. People often repeat the mantras of, “I should eat better” and “I need to exercise more”. But what exactly do those mean? If you ask twelve different personal trainers — the professionals most likely to be sought for aid in “getting in shape”, another amorphous concept — you’ll likely get twelve different answers. Paleo vs. vegan? Moderate, consistent walking vs. high intensity interval training? P90X vs. Crossfit? Low-carb vs. low-fat? Which one is best? Or even more controversially, which one is healthiest? An “it depends” doesn’t work in a world where everyone wants a specific answer, and NOW. But really, it depends. 

The fact is, as far as food recommendations are concerned, the easy part is knowing you should lose the Doritos and drive-thru visits. The hard part is dodging the incoming missiles that tell you to eat bacon instead of whole grains, drink raw (i.e., unpasturized) milk, ignore vegetables because eating them is unnecessary, etc. Often, these recommendations go against the guidelines currently touted by the US government, which leads to an uncomfortable realization that what we thought was a good source of information is not trustworthy.

Or is it?

Or rather, is there anyone out there who really, truly doesn’t have a financial stake in this?

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Reference:

Nagler, R.H. (2014). Adverse outcomes associated with media exposure to contradictory nutrition messages. J Health Commun. 19(1): 24-40.

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I don’t always agree with what journalist Gary Taubes (author, Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat) writes, but he hits the nail on the head in the following NYT opinion piece, in which he maintains that, in spite of hundreds of thousands of research studies, we really don’t know all that much about nutrition.

“Why Nutrition Is So Confusing”

I concur.

Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. I find that very interesting, because children (particularly before they’re school-age) learn everything from adults. They’re not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough (because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that), they will like it and want it…and soon, may want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, will take them there. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded.

Kids learn through repetition. They learn by watching their parents. It does no good for a parent to nurture a bad habit by encouraging it, and then turn around and scold their kids for it. Let’s face it, the parent gets something out of it too. They get peace in the family, they get out of making a meal, they enjoy the food themselves. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that “healthy food tastes yucky, food that’s ‘bad’ for you is yummy”. You are setting up an association that your kids will take with them through life. And it’s easier breaking an association when you’re young than when you’ve been carrying it around for the past 40 years.

Want your kids to eat healthy meals? Then you have to start with yourself. And that’s the tough part. As adults we want to feel like we’ve earned the right to eat what we want, even if it isn’t the greatest thing for us. But your children are little sponges and they soak up the info that you’re placing before them, whether or not you realize it.

I use a three-step approach to keep my kids on track with healthy foods:

1) Keep only healthy, whole, clean food in the house. Yeah, that’s easier said than done, but it’s possible. One of the first steps to establishing healthy eating is clearing the crap out of the kitchen. Not only does it make snacking on garbage impossible, it also serves as an indicator for how committed you yourself are to clean eating. This will also necessitate meal planning and preparation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take a lot more time if done right.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, and you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. Remember my comment about persistence? You just rewarded them for not giving up. The more often a food is offered the more likely that the child will eat it, that works for healthy food too. It can take multiple presentations before they develop a taste for it. But they, like adults, are quite ‘trainable’.

3) You have to eat the food yourself. And that’s the clincher, isn’t it? If you really don’t like broccoli and refuse to eat it, what makes you think your kids will show any interest? If you carry around the notion that healthy eating is the opposite of ‘normal eating’, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider all the messages that you send, buck up and make a lifestyle change.

The behaviorist in me needs to stress: don’t reward kids for eating healthy foods. You shouldn’t make a big deal of it at all. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER EAT SOMETHING JUST TO PLEASE YOU. That’s a biggie, because you want to keep emotion out of the equation.

If you already have a ‘food issue’ that you’re fighting, be aware of the messages that you’re sending your children. If you don’t have an issue, for the love of God, don’t create one in your kids. They will have enough dietary obstacles in their paths as they grow. Take it upon yourself to help them establish healthy eating habits.

Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not fully cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Changing habits is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re not on-board yourself. Make a commitment to set your kids on the path towards healthfulness while you’re still their nutritional gatekeeper. It’ll be the best gift you ever gave them.

I was a diehard Intermittent Fasting (IF) opponent. As a matter of fact, I was frustrated by those who promoted it, believing that it was setting people up for a “starve-binge” cycle. After all, there IS evidence that people who skip breakfast tend to engage in unhealthy eating by the end of the day (here’s an easy-to-read synopsis from Science Daily of a recent study at the University of Missouri). And, being a student of psychology, I felt that it would only encourage a deprivation mentality.

Breakfast is served!

I was right, kind of. But that was because there was one aspect of IF that I didn’t take into consideration. It’s called fat-adaptation, and Mark Sisson (of Mark’s Daily Apple) does a great job of explaining it here. So, yes, if you were to try to engage in IF on the Standard American Diet, which is far too high in starchy, processed carbohydrates, you’d run into problems.

But even as I was cursing the IF fans, my own diet was becoming increasingly fat-adapted as I began eliminating starches (my simple sugars were already low) and increasing my nut intake. Then soy and beans became a rarity on my plate, and even my beloved whole-grain breads were replaced by larger amounts of fresh, in-season vegetables.

But what pushed me over to the fasting way of life was that I had a bad reaction to onions one night. And the pain in my stomach made me so wary of putting anything else into my mouth that I simply chose to skip my morning protein smoothie.

And, surprise, I felt good. Very good, in fact.

I ate about noon that day. Then tried it again the next day and lasted until 3:20. No headaches, no irritability…and no insatiable hunger either. I also found that I could train intensely (rowing, heavy weights, interval training) and simply not bonk — I even set some PRs while fasted. There was no feeling of deprivation, only an understanding that I won’t be eating now, but I will eat in a little while. Psychologically, that is the easiest concept for me to handle. I practice “staying in the moment”, the same mindset that enables me to work through high-intensity exercise. I accept what I’m feeling in that segment of time without worrying about what will happen later.

After all, why worry? I see so many people eat when they’re not hungry because they’re afraid that they’ll be hungry later. And these are not individuals who live under food-insecure conditions. Food will still be here in a couple of hours, or tonight, or tomorrow. We live in such a food-abundant nation, now more so than at any time in human history, and yet, that fear of being hungry exists.

Don’t believe me? Check out the “snack” aisle. Just a little something to hold you over until your next meal. We Americans snack incessantly. Snack foods have taken on a life of their own.

One of the things about IF…I don’t snack. I don’t worry about being hungry. I focus on what I have to get done, and if it’s not time yet to break my fast, that’s okay.

I realize that I’m simplifying the process of my dietary changes in this post, along with how I came around to accept IF (and by that I mean my own version of it), but you can see that it took a while for my body to get ready to do this, and for me to accept that this was an viable course of action to take. I have to admit, had it not been for Mark Sisson’s article on how he fasted “naturally” — not adhering to a strict schedule — I might not have succumbed to trying it. But as someone who puts a high value on being aware of my body’s cues and staying in tune with them, I felt that Mark’s comments clicked with me.

So I’m about a month into a low-starchy carb, higher protein/fat IF way of eating and I know that it’s something I can continue. I don’t have anything pulling me back into my prior feeding schedule, not that there was anything terribly wrong with that either. But this way, I am more at peace with my body’s signals. I will be doing more research into the science behind this and continuing to monitor my response, but for now, this is working quite well. Sometimes I hear water gurgling through my intestines, and I reassure myself that I will definitely eat…

…later.

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Disclaimer: I do believe that there are people for whom any form of IF is inappropriate. I do NOT feel that this is a one-size-fits-all way of eating; personal issues must be taken into consideration. However, there are individuals for whom this can be an effective meal schedule. If this is something you are interested in, DO.YOUR.RESEARCH!

It’s been established that obesity rates are highest for those in the lowest socioeconomic classes (see a report by Gearhart et al., 2008 for a list of supporting references). At the same time, these are also the individuals most likely to rely upon government assistance programs to support themselves. No big surprise there. But is it reasonable to expect that food stamp recipients will be able to eat healthfully on that budget?

This is the question addressed in the new documentary by Shira and Yoav Potash, Food Stamped. As noted on the film’s official website:

“Food Stamped is an informative and humorous documentary film following a couple as they attempt to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet on a food stamp budget. Through their adventures they consult with members of U.S. Congress, food justice organizations, nutrition experts, and people living on food stamps to take a deep look at America’s broken food system. (62 minutes)”

I haven’t seen it yet (that’s my disclaimer), but I think it brings up an interesting issue. If you Google an image of  “healthy meal”, you get something like this:

Healthy eating! But on a food stamp budget?

In the documentary, the filmmakers, one of whom (Shira) is a certified nutritional educator, set out to serve up healthy meals on an average of $1 per person, per meal, the amount you’d be living off if you were a food stamp recipient.

This begs the question, Can you eat salmon on that budget? Should you even expect to?

Note: I know this issue brings up loads of political angles for discussion. Some may argue that it’s a travesty that we don’t offer more for our poor. Others may argue that the poor are only poor because of decisions they’ve made. Either way, the arguments become very heated, particularly during an election year, so, for the record, this blog is veering clear of such discussions. There are plenty of political forums available if you want to fight for your points.

Final thought to ponder: wouldn’t it be interesting to see whether there’s a connection between the two? What if the food stamp programs paid for by the taxpayers are contributing to the expanding waistlines of the poor? Most will agree that a number of our social programs are in need of overhauling. Is it reasonable to think that we could modify them for the better?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past couple of decades, you’re aware that we’re in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic. What you might not be aware of, however, is that we may unwittingly be perpetuating this problem even as we struggle to find a solution. Here’s an example of how this happens:

My 8-year-old took the California Standardized Test over the past few weeks. I had asked her if she was nervous beforehand, she said no…she was looking forward to it because following every test session her teacher was going to give snacks: Goldfish crackers. That’s a rare purchase for us at home because I’m not a fan of processed crackers. But what I’m even less a fan of is equating a job well done with a food prize.

Now, granted, Goldfish crackers aren’t the most evil of concoctions, and I’m actually delighted that the reward was merely crackers rather than sweets even though the idea that we need to offer snacks to mark a good performance (no offense to her teacher, whom I adore!). How about playing a fun game or offering extra recess time?

Great job! Here, have a cookie.

While the above is a mild example of a “food as reward” pairing, what happens when that’s taken a step further and kids are rewarded with unhealthy foods? I learned of a school from out-of-state that threw a junk food-heavy shindig as a spectacular end to their testing weeks. These celebrations are organized by adults who look back at what they ate as children and how many wonderful memories of youth it brings back, and want to share these good feelings with the younger generation. Sadly, these childhood memories don’t mesh with the reality of today, and the current state of our collective waistlines.

Equally important is the mixed message that this type of event sends. On the one hand, there are obesity awareness programs at schools, teaching kids healthy eating, encouraging them to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption. On the other hand, they throw all of that out the window with such a festival, as if acknowledging with a wink, “You know all that healthy-food stuff we taught you? Well, we don’t believe it either.”

I freely admit that rewarding ourselves with food is not a new concept. Special meals for birthdays, graduations, promotions, etc. are to be expected. Sharing joy across the table is part of being human. Meals unite us. Food is pleasure in a small, legal package —  and a very powerful motivator. I’m neither disputing that nor trying to squash long-established mealtime traditions.

But you know those ‘special events’ that we chose to celebrate? Well, every day has become special. TGIF? Why raise the bar so high by waiting ’til the end of the week? “It’s Tuesday, lets celebrate!” Indulging yourself has gone from a once-luxury to something that’s commonplace. With food as accessible as it is, in the varieties in which it’s available, we really run the danger of rewarding ourselves into a host of health problems.

As a result, we do our children a disservice by rewarding them with food when the opportunities for rewards seem never-ending and the quality of food has degraded. And some of you might gripe that I’m taking all the fun out of eating. That may be, but with staggering childhood obesity rates that are NOT getting better, and the knowledge that these children are likely to grow into obese adults, it’s time to stop joking around.

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