Prepare yourself for some ridicule. Because when you set foot in the gym, the “regulars” will look at you and roll their eyes. They might make comments. Or give you icy stares if you break the rules of gym etiquette. They might even be trying to intimidate you so that you retreat to a safe corner where the cardio machines are. When you do eventually give up going to the gym (yes, the odds are stacked against you) you won’t be tempted to even consider returning.

Here’s my advice: ignore them. I know this is easier said than done, but I want you to focus on this. You’re not embarking on an exercise program so that people like you. You’re doing it to save your life. You’re doing it so that you can be stronger, run faster, live longer. Your goals are yours, and yours alone. Others in the gym don’t care if you fail or succeed. But you do.

Those others? They were beginners once too. They might have done biceps curls in the squat rack or tried talking to someone who was in the middle of a set . But 9 times out of 10 even the “regulars” can be pretty clueless, and that includes the personal trainers. The seasoned veterans who DO know what they’re doing didn’t learn everything overnight. It took time and practice and a willingness to ask questions and search for accurate information. And yes, even make mistakes.

Please don’t give up. Our kids are growing up in a world where everyone’s getting increasingly more sedentary. Technology has provided us with myriad more opportunities to move less. What we need now are people willing to buck that trend and establish another that moves us in the direction of more activity and a healthier future. They are people like you, who choose the first of the year to start something new.

You can do that, but you have to keep going.  Little by little, bit by bit.

And all those naysayers at the gym? I hope you kick their asses some day. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I’m counting on you.

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.

I wanted to post something witty for April Fool’s Day…but there’s nothing funny about obesity and inactivity. 😦

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.

Recently, I participated in a discussion about a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, during which one person expressed frustration that a tax would impinge on our freedom of choice. This concern is not new and many have argued that the government oversteps its authority when it tries to discourage consumption of foods deemed to be unhealthy. However, I found the freedom of choice argument very interesting because, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Used to be, there was one type of Oreo cookie. Now, according to NabiscoWorld.com, there are fifty varieties of Oreos to choose from. FIFTY. There is an entire aisle in the grocery store dedicated to breakfast cereals, and yet think of how many people skip breakfast altogether (the estimates I found ranged from 20-40%)! You can’t drive far without passing a fast-food joint, and the last time I went to Fedex something, they had several shelves of candy conveniently close to the cashier, lest you get hungry while standing in line. And the list goes on.

You want something, you can get it, and umpteen varieties of it. Food choices have greatly increased in the past 20-30 years, and this explosion in variety has been implicated as a factor in the increase in obesity: we are likely to consume more when we have a variety of foods to choose from rather than when our choices are limited (Physiol Behav. 1981. 26(2): 215-221.; Obes Res. 2005. 13(5): 883-890.).

Need help finding anything?

To make things worse, much of this variety comes in the form of prepared, processed foods that require little effort to consume. You can find several types of squash in the produce section, but that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling selection of chips in the snack food aisle, ready to eat as soon as you get them out of the store.

And yet, there’s also choice when it comes to exercise. So many different exercise classes, an overabundance of weight machines for every muscle group, a wide array of training protocols and cardio equipment at which you can stand, sit and lie. A flavor to suit every potential exerciser. All this, but about 70% of Americans do not exercise regularly, citing “lack of time” as the main reason…so the myriad of choices hasn’t resulted in more interest…

…however, consider that cable television providers offer over 900 channels of distractions. With that kind of competition for your time and appetite, is it surprising that many people have difficulty establishing healthy food and exercise routines?

My take on this is that we’re nowhere near in danger of running out of choices. Rather, we have far too many selections of the wrong kind of stuff for our own good. Most people expect government intervention in the food industry so that they can be confident that their food is safe. At the same time, Americans freak out if the government proposes legislation to limit access to unhealthy food because that’s viewed as infringing on our personal freedom.

And besides, we’re all smart enough to make healthy choices. Right?

When I picked my kids up from school yesterday, I asked them the same questions I always do: whadya learn, did you play nicely, whadya you eat for lunch. I used to pack their lunches, but they decided they wanted to  eat a hot meal from the school cafeteria just like their friends do. I initially sniffed at the idea, but after learning more about California’s school lunch guidelines, I acquiesced.

I discovered that for my son, one of the perks of eating from the cafeteria is that he gets a choice of regular (“white”) or chocolate milk. Guess which one my son chooses. That ruffles my feathers because I know of the problems associated with liquid calories, but I recognize that while I cannot control what he has at school, I’m still the nutritional overlord at home and don’t budge on healthy eating principles there.

Yesterday, my son announced that he had “white” milk for lunch. My daughter explained: there was no chocolate milk available, only “white” milk, so most kids didn’t drink milk today.

Why is this an important point? Because there’s been a push by the dairy industry to slow the decline in milk consumption by fighting to keep chocolate milk in schools, arguing that when chocolate milk is removed, kids choose less nutritious drinks. The National Dairy council contends that kids don’t drink enough milk as it is, although one wonders how much milk consumption would be deemed “enough” by the organization that has a vested interest in selling as much dairy as possible.

Regardless, my daughter verified that without chocolate milk, kids didn’t drink much of the other stuff. There were no other drink options available besides water, which did not strike me as a negative, but the situation may be different in other school districts.

The behaviorist in me recognizes a bigger problem, however. Children aren’t drinking chocolate milk because they feel the need to get more milk in their diet. They’re drinking it because it’s sweet. By loading milk with sugar in order to coax kids to consume it, we’re basically shaping an addiction to sugar. The more that chocolate milk is presented, the more that kids will demand it in and out of school. That’s not limited to chocolate milk, it encompasses all the other foods they’re consuming. The more sugar that’s in food, the greater the expectation of sugar is, and the greater the resulting demand for a higher level of sweetness. This isn’t rocket science, this is basic learning.

Think I’m picking on the poor kids by wanting to take away their sweetened chocolate milk? Think it doesn’t matter, ‘cuz they’re just kids? Guess what? Those children will grow into adults who will spend lots of money searching for ways to drop the extra weight they packed on because of their sugar addictions. And the majority of them will not succeed.

Yes, it matters.

It’s obvious that our world has a weight problem. It should be equally obvious that it’s not something that will go away overnight. The state of overweight is a multifaceted issue that encompasses a broad range of variables, but today’s post is about something more specific that has a significant effect on us: the role of food in our lives.

It used to be that humans were responsible for gathering their own food — waaaay back when we were hunters and gatherers. Much of early man’s day was dedicated to finding sustenance for survival. As time went on, through division of labor and specialization, we left the food procurement and preparation to farmers, ranchers, bakers, cooks (moms, although admittedly, it’s not one of my stronger points) and the like.

Now, most of us in the industrialized world don’t worry about whether we’ll eat. We worry about where and what. Oh the choices! Narrowing down our options taxes our highly-developed brains. Interestingly, some of the biggest arguments my husband and I had (pre-kids) had to do with where we were going to dine. That’ll test the strength of your marriage: two very hungry humans in one little car, one vegetarian/one omnivore, so many possibilities but nothing seems to please both, neither wants to make the final decision.

No worries, we’ve gotten over that.

Over the years there’s been a shift from food-as-fuel to food-as-entertainment. The food industry has had a hand in this, and their marketing departments have been working overtime. Food portions have exploded to ridiculous sizes, food formulations contain a jacked up amount of salt/sugar/fat to excite our senses, all in multiple versions to appease our obsession with variety. We are encouraged to treat ourselves, indulge, make tonight special — because we’re worth it, we deserve it.

So…when we can make tonight special…and by extension of that, make every night special…what do we do when we really want something SPECIAL? When getting home through traffic deserves a treat, how do we treat ourselves on the days that call for a true celebration? In essence, we’ve raised the bar on indulgences.

And fun. Food must now be FUN, particularly when kids are involved. You see it in parents’ magazines and of course it’s prevalent in advertising to “kids of all ages”. We’re all brought back to our childhood when we could stuff ourselves silly and not worry about repercussions.

But the longer we cling to the notion that food serves a purpose other than to nourish us, the more we strengthen the influence that it has on our emotions. Most of the people I speak with have some sort of emotional link to food that makes dropping weight all that more difficult. That’s when the simple concept of “healthy eating and exercise” becomes not-so-simple.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t treat your body with food rewards. Treat your body with respect.