Saturday, December 20, 2014

Burning through the calories: where the carbs fit for weight management

Are you hyper focusing on the nutrients that are 'safe' to eat?
Processed foods are bad, toxic even. Breads, even so-called wheat breads, must be avoided. Other starches aren’t great for you either—but those whole grains seem a little better. And forget sugar, because you know all the horror stories about what sugar does.  Best to avoid it all; it’s much safer that way.

That’s what Dave thinks, and he’s not alone. He's an underweight young man, unhealthily thin. Yes, most sources of carbs are a problem for him. In fact, most fats are also a problem for him. He selects only foods he perceives as super-foods—super healthy choices chock full of nutrients; he’s not contaminating his body with any of that other junk. He reads a lot, but never the full research paper, because, I mean, who does? Anyway, if it’s in print, then it must be true, right?

Start to look at the big picture.
No, not correct. Even all the hype about sugar and its negative impact on health pulls from studies showing high intakes—25% of total calories, to be specific. That’s a lot of sugar. And that’s quite different than including a couple of mint Milanos or Lindt chocolates for instance, in the midst of a healthy, balanced diet. But why all the fuss, you ask? Who needs processed carbs anyway?

An RDA for chocolates?

It’s like this. There’s no daily requirement for processed foods—that’s for certain. But creating long lists of foods to avoid creates another set of health issues, both mental and physical. Deprivation, for one, creates rebound overeating, so setting rigid rules about all the foods you can’t eat becomes an issue. Further, avoiding large categories of foods as Dave does leaves fewer fuel sources and nutrients to meet your needs. A diet of vegetables and lean protein and a bit of fruit will likely leave you low energy—carbohydrate stores are our go-to for fuel; yes there’s a reason why Marathoners have a pasta dinner before their event.  Food rules are challenging to adhere to and lead to increased preoccupation with food and eating.

It’s worse if your needs are high, like if you are in the process of restoring weight from a low place. Truly, metabolic rate dramatically increases to well above what others of the same height (but who weren’t restricting and now re-feeding) experience. So the feeling of fatigue may result, and if you’re wondering why your strength is lost, this could be why. Or if you are a growing teen, restricting what you can eat may add to your problems—it’s challenging to meet your needs to restore normal growth when there’s lots you choose not to eat.

Burn, baby burn

Take a step back and try to look at your
assumptions a bit differently.
It's hard to negotiate with irrational thoughts. And the media's messages villainizing most anything that tastes good hardly help. So I’ll turn to my fireplace analogy to help him (and you) see carbs as just another fuel.

Let's say you have a fireplace. You could burn logs of pine or oak or maple. Burning each log type generates heat, turns to ashes in the end, regardless of which you started with.

Should it matter to you which type of log or fuel you use? Well you might have a preference for the scent of pine or maple, let's say. But from a fuel standpoint, it doesn't much matter. That is, as long as the total amount of wood is equivalent. It's just like food and its building blocks. You could burn carbs or protein or fats that you eat and yield energy—our heat equivalent here. And as long as the total amount of fuel or calories is the same, your body hardly cares where the fuel source came from—from a weight standpoint. You may have a preference for the taste of chicken or of nuts, and some foods may be more satiating (think whole grains or balanced meals including protein); and a varied diet will help meet your nutrient needs over time. But if the calories are the same, they will generate about the same amount of energy.

That's sweetened chai tea with real milk to go with our
carb-based snack.
But substitute some twigs and the fire dies down fast. Rice cakes, for instance, just won't sustain the energy. You could swap newspaper for the logs. But you'd need a ton of it to heat your house in winter. Yes, just like if you chose only light products or large volume but low calorie dense foods like broths or salads with little substance to them.

So what can I do now?

Stoke your fire with items that are pleasant. I love the scent of burning pine, personally, and I enjoy a good piece of pastry when I need the fuel. There are times those whole grains are just what I'm yearning, and they'll likely take a bit more time to process, and thus burn, than just white rice. But brown sushi just doesn't seem right.  And favoring protein and eating lots of it simply because you heard it’s good for you is no advantage for long-term weight management.

A healthy body requires getting enough. Not just total calories, but satisfaction, from a wide range of foods and nutrients. Isn’t it time you free yourself from the unnecessary food rules?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

If you're struggling with your eating you're not alone! Strategies for the holidays and beyond.

These past weeks more people appear to be struggling with their eating. I don't know if statistics support it, and I haven't done a study. It's simply what I'm noticing. So I thought it might be valuable to share what I'm hearing. Because if they're feeling and thinking these thoughts, you just might be, too. 

And I'm hoping that regardless of your type of eating struggle that you'll feel a bit more supported after reading this post. These are not simply holiday eating concerns. Rather, it appears that preexisting concerns get heightened during this time of year.

Setting the record straight

The holiday season may not be the happiest time of the year as the Christmas songs may suggest. There are the common stresses--there's much to get done in limited time, like shopping, meal planning and cooking, perhaps accompanied by a bit of financial concern. Most often these fall on the woman of the house, adding to her usual responsibilities, it seems. You might even have to get dressed up for holiday parties, presenting it's own issues.  And the added stress doesn't make the abundant food challenges any easier. No, you're not alone if you're struggling to eat well this time of year. Here are a few common themes I've been hearing and some guidance to help you through.
  • Dealing with unstructured time like days off and weekends can be a challenge. Your schedule and your eating can get thrown off leaving you not so confident about what is and when it's okay to eat. But you can always add your own structure. If you wake up late, still make a point of eating within an hour of waking regardless of the time. Be cautious to avoid long intervals without eating, and do include at least 3 meals. Keep snacks handy when you're out and about, to have whenever you might need them--regardless of the hour. Be vocal too-- just because the person you're with doesn't need to eat, doesn't mean you don't need to!
  • It's a struggle giving yourself permission to enjoy great tasting foods. And as a result, you lay on the guilt. And feeling bad about your eating truly does nothing positive. You're more likely to eat those desireable foods quickly, when no one is in sight, and with less enjoyment, than if you truly gave yourself permission to taste them and fully take them in with pleasure. Normal, healthy people eat holiday foods including cakes and sweets--and it's ok. Really. And you are no different. In fact, one of the best things you can do is not expect that you will only eat that special food just this once. Because that now or never feeling will only backfire, leading you to want to overeat those foods--whether or not you're hungry.
  • It takes 3,500 calories to gain a single pound. That's 3,500 surplus calories, over and above your needs for maintaining your weight. So the impact of some pie or Buche de Noel? Not even a dent. Now's the time to start legalizing the foods you enjoy, but start with just one item at a time. See the blog posts on this subject for more guidance. 
  • You feel like you're eating all the time.  Frankly you just might be eating all the time, by which I mean 5 or 6 times per day. Yup, that is absolutely normal. Why pathologize frequent eating, as if it's some problem?  We do need to eat regularly-- for energy, for fuel, to prevent rebound overeating, and to prevent the decreased interest in eating that can snowball into full fledged restricting for those so inclined. Just be sure that when you eat you allow yourself to truly get enough. And ask yourself if you're reaching for food to manage stress, or boredom, or because you've already given up and plan to take control on January 1st.
  •  Everyone seems to be focused on weight and dieting and food guilt. You know, the "I really shouldn't be eating this but..." It's really too bad. But you can break from the pack and cut off the triggering chat by redirecting the conversation. Use a simple statement like, "subject change" then ask a question on a different subject. You also might need to turn off the TV for some months til the diet talk subsides. And consider blocking posts from friends with triggering diet and body image talk!
  •  You feel ashamed to be seeking help for your eating because you simply don't think you're thin enough to really have a problem, never mind an eating disorder. And that makes it all the more challenging asking for help. Seek guidance from those who specialize in eating disorders; we are well aware that food struggles exist in those of so called normal weight, and that anorexia and bulimia know no weight limits. People of all sizes may struggle with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. And it is no less serious in those in the "normal" BMI range.

Please know you're not alone. But please reach out for help to those that get it. If you're a parent, check out FEAST. If you're an adult with an eating disorder, regardless of your gender, check out aspire. Look at pro recovery websites linking from this blog, and check out their links too. National and local organizations like the Butterfly Foundation, MEDA, NEDA and others can help direct you for support and care. Virtual supports as well as live supports abound and it's not too late to change your relationship with food--and to recover from an eating disorder.

Wishing you all a peaceful holiday season!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Google diet. No need to keep searching.

I've seen it first hand. And I'm certain that if you were to experience it first hand, that you'd be sold too. This is no testimonial for quick weight loss, nor for the latest cleanse. And I haven't lost my mind. And yes, I've already eaten my breakfast, and had my coffee--so my thinking is quite clear.

It's time to open our eyes to what Google already knows about being healthy and fit. And to apply those lesson plans to our schools--and to our selves. I'm talking about the Google diet: Google's approach to food and eating, to feeding it's many employees, that's super smart. It seems strikingly crafted, based on the research on keeping us healthy--and happy. I had no plans to blog on this, but after visiting a couple of Google offices I just had to share. Because we can all get some answers from Google.

So what's so impressive about the Google diet?

Snacking: from portions to placement

Google likes snacking. So yes, already I'm sold. There are snack stations at various sites throughout Google buildings, with several notable features: there are m & m's, and there are organic bars; there's dried fruit and fresh fruit (much of it local no doubt) and nuts and yogurts.  Take your pick. Yes, there are desirable snack options that encourage Googlers (employees) to snack. Because we all need to snack for energy, for clarity, for productivity. Or we get tired. And cranky. And impulsive when we finally get our hands on food. Or, we miss our opportunity to eat when hungry, and for some, interest in eating is lost.

There are very mini cups--the folded paper ones like what you get pills in at the hospital--and there are cereal size bowls, too. Need just a few peanut m & m's? Portion them into a mini cup and acknowledge you're eating them. And they'll look like much more, and appear more satisfying, than if served in a cereal bowl. (see Brian Wansink's work on this.) Googlers might even be encouraged to choose the more wholesome choices by placing them at eye level--just as supermarkets stock Fruit Loops at toddler height. 

And those snack areas? They are separate from work areas. We all need to have a time out for eating, separate from our other activities. And by keeping them separate, Googlers aren't prompted to eat them just because of the visual stimulus. Rather, they have to decide to go and get a snack because, I suspect, they're hungry. 

In contrast to Google,  our schools, specifically Middle and High schools, pretend that kids no longer need to eat between meals. They expect them to function well and not be irritable, in spite of drops in their blood sugar and falling energy levels. Yes, growing kids certainly need snacks between meals.

Yet teens are at the mercy of individual teachers to possibly break the rules to allow snacking in their classrooms; or, they must get permission when medically necessary to eat at the nurse's office. Sometimes kids need to sneak food in between classes--often the easiest option. Yup, nothing like encouraging our kids to start sneaking food.


In schools, the curriculum speaks of good versus bad foods--although admittedly in slightly more opaque terms (see my last post). Fruits, vegetables and low fat foods--they're the good stuff, while fats and sugars--they're viewed as bad. It reminds me of the unsuccessful DARE drug education program taught in US schools, the program which had my middle schooler at the time appalled that I would dare to drink a glass of Cabernet with dinner. 
Not a Google dessert, but it could have been.

At Google it's about moderation. At the cafeteria, foods are labeled using the traffic signal approach: best choices get a green light, to be eaten freely; yellow, more caution with frequency and amounts, and red lights urge awareness that these shouldn't be eaten too often. (Think creamy clam chowder or fatty meat dishes.) But note that red light items are still served, and balance is the take home message. I can't say how effective the traffic light system actually is, but I surely like that they're not encouraging fat free or low calorie foods, nor displaying calorie counts in their cafeteria. Our schools, in contrast direct our kids to calorie count hoping that that awareness will solve the 'obesity epidemic'. 

I almost forgot to tell you about the desserts! They're served every day--but the portions seem rather reasonable. And they weren't placed at the start of the lunch line where diners are sure to grab it first thing--that's where the salad was displayed. Rather, it was somewhere in the center if I remember correctly--I had to search for it actually. And knowing there's no shortage of desserts being served each week surely must prevent Googlers from hoarding their desserts. No doubt they trust that it'll be there. And they can eat just as much as they need, because tomorrow will bring another dessert. (see Halloween post about this)

It's gotta taste good 

Ok. I realize that Google employs Michelin star chefs to prepare delicious food for their employees. But can't we even serve more desirable fruits and fruit salads in our schools? Can't we stir fry some tasty veggies to be more appealing for kids to want to eat? Can't we serve mini cookies with lunch--to teach balance and moderation? And can't we allow ourselves to eat foods we truly enjoy?

Support movement

Biking or walking to work? You get rewarded! Yup, in Google's case, financially. Bike to school and you might be sent home. Seriously. It happened to a patient of mine in MA. And you'd be lucky if there were a place to store your bike! In US schools, the move has been to reduce physical education. At Google it has been to add spin classes and yoga. Something needs to change in our communities to support more movement.

Consider these Google diet lessons

  • We all need opportunities to snack, when we're hungry. 
  • Be strategic in your placement of food in your environment--we don't need it shouting to us, but it needs to be available for when we want it.
  • Food should taste good, and we all need permission to eat what we like--in portions appropriate for our individual need.
  • Dessert are not just for birthdays and holidays.
  • Incentives for movement encourage movement. 
  • Foods aren't simplistically good and bad nor are we good nor bad for eating them.
Thanks for reading! Comments welcome!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Start counting your calories boys and girls!

Should they start weighing and measuring
everything they eat?
This scares me. Really it does. The US government, the FDA more specifically, has decided to encourage kids and their educators and families—i.e. everyone—to start tracking their calories, because, you know, doesn’t that solve the ‘obesity epidemic’? Well, no, it doesn’t—and it may cause more harm than good.

Their stated goal is to get kids and families to start reading labels and think more about what and how much they eat. Innocent enough, right? Well I don’t think so. Maybe I’m biased because I see far too many kids and adults, stuck in their heads with too much information; they spend time calorie counting, and limit their choices to single portions of foods because that’s what the label says is the ‘right’ amount. They allow the label to define their personal need, as if serving size was one-size-fits-all, when really it’s designed to provide information about nutritional value per serving, based on “usual” portions. They’ve lost their intuitive sense of how to regulate their intake.

What’s wrong with this campaign?

Let’s start with the messages in this campaign, and then you decide how helpful the guidance is. Here are a few highlights, shown indented.

The end of childhood.
Keep track of the calories you eat throughout the day. To find out what your “target” calories per day are, visit .

Should kids really be tracking their calories, as if simply knowing their magic number would make everything all right? Calorie calculators are far from accurate, and don’t take into account a fair assessment of muscle mass which increases calorie requirement. They fail to adjust for individual variation in caloric need, aside for activity level. Larger sized body? You’ll get prompted with a CDC message that you’re at a high BMI and can choose to move to a ‘healthier’ weight—with no assessment of risk factors, and without regard to whether this has historically been a healthy place for you (based on your growth curves, if you’re a child, or your weight history, if you’re an adult).

I tried it out, for the sake of this piece. Where are the fats, I wondered? The sweets? Where’s the healthy, balanced diet? Exchanges from all food groups are included except for the oils and fats (fats may be components of foods in each category, but there was no place for added fats like healthy oils)despite acknowledging separately that they provide essential nutrients. 

They do identify a calorie level for what’s called empty calories—which I was pleased to seebut they don't include it as part of my daily meal plan! Surely they need to be included—because forbidding them will only lead to deprivation and preoccupation with getting them. Omitting them surely sends a message—that they are bad, and kids and adults will feel bad including them.

The impact on real kids

This might be just what Dan needs to meet his nutritional needs.
Dan decided to become a vegetarian last year, along with a family member because he cares about animals. Fine enough, as far as I’m concerned. But then his high school health teacher (using the FDA curriculum) directed him and his classmates—regardless of their size—to reduce their fat and sugar intake and choose foods lower in calories. You know, because of the ‘obesity epidemic’.

Problem is, Dan was thin from the start. And his intake was limited enough. And being tall, and active, resulted in inappropriate weight loss, during a time that weight gain is appropriate and necessary to support growth and development. Guidance from a respected figure like your high school teacher seems like a logical thing to follow—especially when it’s coming from the US government’s program.  Yet Dan is one of many, many kids I’ve seen negatively impacted by the direction of their health or science teacher.

Are you eating  just for calories?

Kids, like adults, eat for all kinds of reasons—because they’re stressed or anxious, because they’re tired, because they’re procrastinating getting their work done and because their friends are snacking, to name a few. Just telling them ‘here’s how much to eat’ fails to acknowledge the many obstacles to ‘Just doing it’. What if we taught them how to moderate portions and how to manage stress, arming them with alternative coping skills?

If you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight.
I’m tired of weight gain being framed as a negative. Yes, they’ll gain weight! Isn’t that what growing kids are supposed to be doing?

400 calories or more per serving is high; 100 calories per serving is moderate
Yes, so what? The teenage athletes or kids in super growth modes might need closer to the high end than the low for calories per snack.

Consider stuffing a pita or wrapping a low-fat whole grain tortilla as a lower-fat alternative to some breads.
Why lower fat alternative? And how many breads are high fat anyway—unless we’re talking about croissants, which we don’t typically refer to as bread! And why pull out fat as a problem nutrient to be watched? There’s no shortage of evidence that low fat diets  have failed us in our attempt to control weight.

Read the Label to see which foods are lower in nutrients to get less of — then replace one high-fat or high-calorie item you would have ordered with one that has lower calories or fat.
Again, why villainize fats? Maybe portions to meet individual’s needs would be more appropriate to address.

Choose foods with less sugar.
For the record, you should know that a glass of milk—plain, unsweetened milk (yes, even organic and even more so fat free) contains a decent amount of sugar. Natural sugar, called lactose, that hasn’t been linked to disease development nor to obesity. And dried fruit? And fresh—if it had a label?  All are also high in sugar and need not be avoided. Perhaps this needs to be clarified in their materials.

Nuts and dried fruits can make great snacks because they often contain nutrients to get more of – as long as you follow the serving size!
Does that mean kids need to limit their portion to ¼ cup—even of their calorie needs are high?

Why this needs to change

I worry about the impact on our kids.
Dieting is one precipitator of eating disorders; a significant percentage of those struggling with an eating disorder started off with what seemed like an innocent diet. And we surely don’t need to increase this population.
Kids need enough calories to support growth. Weight loss is generally not indicated in kids.

General educators are not skilled enough to nuance the recommendations individually, and may have their own nutrition and diet baggage, so to speak. The teacher educating kids to calorie count who perhaps is also on Atkins is not the person I’d want influencing my children’s eating.
I certainly support nutrition education in schools. But I’d like to see a different type of education.

Imagine this

What if we taught this in schools instead? (adapted from Drop the Diet, Lieberman and Sangster link):

  • Eat breakfast within a half hour of waking.
  • Include 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily, at a minimum. Avoid going more than 3 ½ - 4 hours without eating (during waking hours, of course).
  • Avoid compensating for a less-than-stellar day of eating; consider a clean slate, forgiving yourself for less-than-ideal eating.
  • Shut the TV and the electronics when eating, and work on eating mindfully. 
  • Keep all food in the kitchen—not the TV room, not the bedroom.
  • Use your senses; smell, see, feel, hear and taste your food, and truly enjoy eating.
  • Beware of false fullness from drinking lots of water or non-caloric beverages, or eating large volume of low calorie foods.
  • Ask yourself  “Am I hungry?” Consider other means to satisfy those other eating triggers when you aren’t hungry.
  • Clean up the environment. Keep foods off the counter to prevent them from calling to you. But eat foods you enjoy when you do need to eat. Then use the strategies above to manage portions.
As for the adults impacted by this campaign, be aware that at best, approximately 1 in 5 people who intentionally lose weight successfully keep it off for more than a year—and few studies track outcomes beyond this point. But maintaining lost weight should not be the sole measure of success. Weight suppression data identifies the risks that maintaining a weight below one’s highest weight creates.

Let’s not be short sighted and worsen one problem in an attempt to improve the health of our kids. There really is a better way.