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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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.

Obesity: You'll know it when you see it...or will you?

We need to be careful with how we throw labels around — psychologists are particularly prone to this, and sometimes we don’t consider the repercussions from careless diagnoses, official or not. Some of these terms are derived in ways other than how you’d expect. A perfect example of this is the term “obese”. Interestingly enough, while we imagine an obese individual to be someone who is very fat, it’s possible for an individual with low body fat and a LOT of muscle (think Mr. Olympia) to end up in the same category. That’s because the official designation of “obese” is based not on fat, but on height and weight, using the Body Mass Index. But once you label someone as “obese”, our imaginations run off with what else that means…

In health terms, an individual is described as obese when he/she has a BodyMass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI is calculated as:

weight (kg)/[height (m)]2.

That’s all. It simply means that the person has attained a certain, greater degree of overweight that has knocked them into a certain category. Note that there is no direct measurement of fat involved, and in fact, the correlation of BMI with body fat is rough and imperfect, but “kinda, sorta good enough”. However, in the realm of public health, collecting reliable data is critical to making accurate assessments about populations, and it’s easier to measure height and weight (which are fairly straightforward measurements) than to try to gather body fat data (generally more time consuming and fraught with user-errors). And because of that “kinda, sorta good enough” correlation, the BMI is used to determine whether a person gets knocked into the “obese” category. The BMI was never designed to diagnose individuals, as has begun happening. If you’ve ever played “Wii Fit” and wanted to throw the balance board at your TV screen, you probably know what I mean — BMI is all over the place and being misused regularly. Wikipedia does an unusually good job of describing the problems with overinterpreting BMI here.

So the BMI, the measure by which we determine whether someone is, or isn’t, overweight/obese, is simply a number that doesn’t have anything to do with body fat, really. HOWEVER, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “obese” as “having excessive body fat”. Doesn’t that seem wrong? “Fat percentage” is not a variable in the BMI formula (have I stated that enough times in one post?), but the word “obese” by definition is based on body fat. And the designation of “obese” as it’s used in our daily lives becomes painfully emotional to many people.

I came across an interesting article (via Twitter, thanks to @AliciaMarieBODY) about an obese woman who managed to avoid looking at herself as she gradually put on fat, thereby ignoring the changes to her body, only to be confronted by her physician with the reality of her physical state. She knew she was heavy, but grossly underestimated her actual weight. When her doctor told her she was obese, her response was,

“It may sound unlikely, but I was genuinely shocked. In my mind I was far from obese. To me, obese was beyond fat  –  with connotations of someone who was greedy, lazy and uneducated and that wasn’t me.”

Wow! To her, it wasn’t simply excess weight or even fat, it was something much worse than that. It was a character judgment. How frightening that a simple measurement (BMI), calculated from two very objective measurements (height and weight), would be interpreted so subjectively.

Even the word itself — “OH-BEEEESE” — sounds unpleasant and bears a resemblance to ‘obscene’, so it’s not surprising that there are several levels of negative connotations wrapped around it. Obese suggests extremely fat to the point of being a circus sideshow. It sounds hideous and evil.

So, we’ve transitioned from simple body measurements to their interpretation as body fat to something that’s nasty. The issue is no longer a number, but rather a reflection of who the person is as a human being. That’s a heavy emotional hit for someone who sees themselves as merely “carrying extra pounds”…and then is confronted with the loaded label of “obese”.

Taking all these things into consideration, it’s not surprising that the woman’s quote above reveals something more insidious that merits consideration: even the obese are prejudiced against the obese.

While I’m not recommending that we take “obese” out of the English language, I hope that people understand how that designation arose. And even more importantly, that it’s not an immutable life sentence. It doesn’t mean you’re bad, lazy, gluttonous, stupid or anything else negative that some people ascribe to that label. It does mean that you should take stock of your habits and see if you’re one of those who needs to reduce their body fat levels to get themselves out of a high-risk category for a number of diseases.

Perhaps I’m too trusting, but when the number on my dumbbell says “20”, I kinda sorta expect it to really weigh twenty pounds.

I had been training with a pair of 20-pounders that were purchased individually, so they were slightly different in form. The shape disparity was subtle in the heads but noticeable in that one dumbbell had a teensy-bit wider bar, making the grip feel different. Well, that would always throw me off, because the thicker bar made me tire faster, or so I thought. I searched PubMed for a viable explanation and went so far as to contact exercise scientist Mike Nelson about whether he’d seen research on the connection between grip diameter and fatigue. And then — DUH! — it occurred to me to actually weigh the stupid things!

If it says "20", it MUST weigh 20#, right? Right?

Okay, it wasn’t exactly twenty pounds, which surprised me…but not as much as what I got weighing the OTHER dumbbell:

Well, THIS one's gotta be 20#, right? EEEEEK!

Gee, that explains the sensation of imbalance! A full two pounds-worth. That may not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with twenty pounds on your triceps, it makes quite a difference.

I emerged from this experience somewhat wiser, all the while hoping Mike didn’t think I was a total moron. Incidentally, I happened to weigh my 30-pounders and both came up as thirty-one pounds. At least they were consistent.

Caveat emptor.

What message does this send?

As the primary food-shopper for my family, I catch up on all the latest gossip by the grocery store check-out counter where I have nothing better to do than read magazine headlines and contemplate my navel.

While I was standing in line today, the cover of Woman’s World caught my eye, specifically the diet plan that they’re peddling this week. Rejoice, America, it’s the Food-Lovers’ Diet! As a behaviorist, I don’t even know where to start telling you how wrong this is. And please, don’t jump on me for taking the fun out of eating. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know how I feel about pimping food as entertainment. That doesn’t mean meals can’t taste good and be satisfying, but part of our struggle with our weight stems from the fact that many of us are in LOVE with food and use it to soothe ourselves. We’ve taken our relationship with what we eat to a whole new level of emotional dependence.

I want you to consider the images on the cover. The toffee bars and frosted cupcakes seem so sinful and decadent, and if we can eat them and lose weight, YAY!!! Although the article itself may tout reduced-calorie versions of those desserts, what that cover suggests is that we shouldn’t have to cut back on the foods, laden with sugar and fat, that we’ve been told contribute to the obesity epidemic.

What if you need to lose more than nine pounds? 😛

We are clinging to the expectation that there’s no need to change our eating behaviors. The scammers will feed us that idea in order to sell “miracle” weight loss products (or copies of magazines) knowing that we so desperately want to believe there’s an easy fix.  Someone who doesn’t even read the full article will, consciously or not, register that there’s still some other “more permissive” way of dropping pounds than giving your body the nutritional respect that it needs through clean eating. People are dutifully waiting for the holy grail of diets to fall from the skies — or be delivered by aliens — and turn the weight loss world upside down.

For long term success in getting blubber to go buh-bye you have to inventory your eating habits. If you’re trying to shoehorn “treats” into your eating plan on a daily basis, you’re squeezing out more nutritious food. If you constantly tell yourself that you “deserve” to indulge, what are you saying when you try to limit the indulgences? That you don’t deserve them, that you’re not worth it. And feeling worthless is not a great mindset with which to embark on a fat loss journey.

What you do deserve is a fighting chance at improving your health. Not letting go of the behaviors that packed on the pounds will not get you there.

Pardon this rant, it’s most un-personal-trainer-like of me. In the interest of empathy — and the fact that I’ve dubbed 2010 my “Year of Compassion” — I’m going to suspend some of my strong feelings about exercise-uber-alles and illustrate the way many of today’s mothers think:

After leaving the professional world, I spent about seven years as a stay-at-home-mom. I understand the work involved in rearing a child or two, in addition to the thankless task of perpetual housekeeping (which I suck at). It’s not a glamorous profession — we don’t go into it expecting it to be — but even the best of us get knocked for a loop with the sheer magnitude of our new responsibilities. So please, trainers, don’t tell moms to “put themselves first” or “make themselves a priority”. We’re moms, we don’t do that. We carry life inside us for nine-month stints. And it becomes our numero uno priority. No caffeine, no sleeping on the back, no valsalva maneuver, no haircoloring…the list of “don’ts” is extensive. We believe that everything we do is for the health of the baby.

So please, don’t ridicule moms for not focusing on exercise! As a trainer I know that exercise is critical. But when we can barely make it out of bed to the toilet thanks to morning sickness, the last thing we want to hear is how beneficial exercise is to our well being. Particularly when it comes from someone who hasn’t had the same experience (and if you own a penis, never will).

Side rant: It’s obvious that we live in a male-dominated world. Consider the pregnancy test. Designed by a man…because no woman would come up with a test for which you’d need to pee on a stick. PEE.ON.A.STICK. ‘Male’ written all over it. I can get my hands, the toilet seat, the floor and with the right angle, the wall. But you want me to hit a stick?

Once the baby’s born, we don’t suddenly have loads of time or energy. Sometimes we wish the kid would crawl back in “there” because we’d get more done. The perpetrator of this (i.e., Dad) comes home from work and thinks we’re lying around watching TV and eating bon-bons while he’s busy earning a living. Really? Imagine having a job for which you’re on-call 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week for years. You get peed, pooped and puked on. Oh yeah, you don’t get paid for it either, so you’re not considered a productive member of society. Most of your time is spent putting out fires, but the “head of household” questions what the hell you’ve been doing all day, why you look a mess, why last night’s dirty dishes are still in the sink and why dinner’s not waiting for him. Our lives are marathons, except that we don’t have the benefit of being able to train for them beforehand.

First attempts at “making time” for ourselves generally flop. When there’s no one else to watch the kids,  creating “me time” is not so simple. And when we finally get some peace and quiet…sometimes all moms want to do is sit in silence and stare at a blank wall. I know I did. And I ENJOY exercise. What about a mom who’s feeling isolated, depressed and fat, and has had few positive experiences with fitness? You’ll get nowhere by making her feel guilty about not finding time to exercise when she’s convinced that time doesn’t exist. Quite frankly, sometimes it doesn’t.

Forget going to a gym. Exercising at home may be the only reliable option. Videos come in handy here and they’ve come a long way since Jane Fonda’s arm flapping. However, fifteen minutes and six interruptions later, even the most stalwart mom may be ready to give up.

Hey, I’m a hardass when it comes to food choices. I will not take my kids to McDonald’s, and that puts me in the minority, sadly. But believe me, McD’s has a clever marketing department. They put playgrounds inside their restaurants. Moms bring their kids there, buy them Happy Meals…and the addiction to fast food begins. I don’t agree with the food choice, but I understand why they do it. They’re not bad moms, just tired…and in that tired state, vulnerable to the power of suggestion. They’re also stressed enough to accept help in watching their kids from whomever is willing to offer, even if it’s a creepy red-haired clown.

The bottom line: Don’t tell moms to put themselves first. It sounds wrong to them; besides, they don’t need the guilt (they have enough already, thanks). Show moms how they can fit both childrearing/housework and exercise into their day, teach them not to be discouraged by imperfect workouts, encourage progress in baby steps and listen to their concerns…you’ll get more compliance. And accept the fact that there will be times when they WILL be too tired to exercise. Don’t berate them for that. They pushed a bowling ball through a small hole between their legs; with the right support, they’ll get the fitness thing down too.

This started out as a post about the evils of meal-skipping, but I found myself writing about how we fool ourselves into less-than-ideal choices when in a food-deprived state. So I’ll use skipping meals as a vehicle for exploring a couple of these concepts.

Take this scenario: You have no time for breakfast and rush in to work with a cup of coffee. Around 11am you poke your nose into the conference room and see the leftover Krispy Kreme doughnuts from someone’s morning meeting. You snag a couple, noting that you didn’t have breakfast and won’t have time for lunch.

Work is stressful. Answering phone calls, replying to emails, writing reports. Barely time to go to the bathroom. You work late, alternating between coffee and soft drinks to keep you going. By 8pm  you’re starving, irritable and ready to bite someone’s head off. The last thing you can imagine — or have patience for — is cooking.

Instead of heading home, you swing by Outback Steakhouse, drawn in by the thought of a juicy burger. You order their bacon cheeseburger, but because you want to be “good”, you get the house salad with oil & vinegar as a side, instead of succumbing to the temptation of their Aussie fries. Top that off with a drink.

Here’s the ugly part: In two sittings, you’ve already consumed over 2000 calories just like that (surprise, the house salad does you no favors). It may seem unfair but the food industry works hard to make eating easy.

Two of the things that are influencing your actions:

1) Justification. You justify your food choices by figuring that because you’ve had fewer meals, you’ve “saved up” calories that can now be spent on crappy food. It doesn’t work that way. The food that you’re most likely to reach for when you’re starved has been engineered to be easily consumable for the sake of convenience, because we’re so bloody impatient. That means you’ll have eaten a lot more of it before your stomach signals to your brain that it’s full. Never a good thing.

Note: If you feel the need to use phrases like “I know this isn’t the healthiest, but…” and “I’m being bad, but…” then you are desperately searching for a justification for your choices. You know what you’re doing is unhealthy, but you’re doing it anyway. Do that enough, and you’ll be waking up wondering where those extra 40 pounds came from.

2) Perception. Maybe you think that the only things you ate all day were two doughnuts, a cheeseburger and a salad. Sounds rather innocuous when you put it that way. Also sounds like you’d come up calorie-deficient. The problem is that people are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to recalling how much they’ve eaten. Reality bites: those doughnuts range between 200-400 calories each and the burger and salad amount to just under an insane 1500 cals — “No rules, just wrong”! That doesn’t include the caloric cost of any drinks consumed along the way. And you refused the bread basket, right?

Note: Many people don’t really know what a healthy meal looks like. Meat & potatoes? A salad with light dressing? Our beliefs regarding proper food choices are based on many things, but least frequently science. Quite confusing and frustrating for someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing (skipping meals, perhaps) because it seems so logical, but ends up counterproductive.

The take-home message here is that when you stress your body by not feeding it regularly, you leave yourself vulnerable to slip-ups that may seem justified and innocent but do a disservice to you and your goals. The trick is to plan for times when you can’t stop for a full meal by making sure you have something available to pop in your mouth. Otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of your irrational appetite as your goals fade to a faint speck on the horizon.