Saturday, July 26, 2014

Want to know how much I ate today? The pros and cons of comparing your eating to others’

Today's breakfast-crepes with sauteed fruit,
melted chocolate drizzle and vanilla yogurt.
When I was little, I mean, when I was young, (I was never particularly little compared to my peers), I recall a recurrent argument with my mother. “She can have it/eat it/do it—so why can’t I?”, I’d beg to know, to which she’d respond something like “If she jumps off the Empire State building does that make it okay for you too?” (Yes, I’m from NY and that was the tallest building back then.) Her point, of course, was that what’s good for one isn’t necessarily good for another. And if you’re going to compare, be careful.

Which gets me to you and your need to compare yourself to others; and more specifically, to compare your eating and your weight.  So what do you think—helpful to compare or harmful? Is it okay sometimes, or must you be consistent and never compare? Does it matter if you’re under eating, or if you’re overweight or is it simply dangerous?

Does it really matter what I eat (or anyone else, for that matter)?

Well, yes. To be honest, that’s why I include all the so-called food porn on this blog—beautiful images of delectable foods—all of which I am personally eating. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter. I mean I can give you sensible guidance regardless of how I choose to eat. But knowing that someone else is eating cookies or including carbs, or adding fats—things you just might fear—and is perfectly fine, reassures us. Viewing a peer’s eating as they’re comfortably eating ice cream can help motivate. Yes, normal, healthy people can and do eat ice cream. Seeing this can help increase your flexibility around foods and food categories—and that surely can help you change your relationship with food.

Yet it’s rather unprofessional to suggest that because something is fine for me that it’s fine for you. When I make my recommendations, they are based on my clinical experience—my 28 years in the nutrition field—and my knowledge of nutritional science and the limited research we have to work with.  What’s fine for me, isn’t necessarily right for you; I might include lots of veggies daily, but for you that added volume might be a challenge, making it difficult to meet your calorie needs. I might make most snacks rather calorie rich—when I’m out cycling or hiking for many hours and I’d rather eat smaller portions at each snack for convenience—this may be unnecessary for you; I’m almost 5’8 and my weight is just fine where it is, but your needs may be different—based on your height, your bone structure, your muscle mass, perhaps from years as an athlete, and your needs to normalize your weight to support your health.

Be careful!

My lunch. Looks big, right? Two pitas 'cause they were those too-light-be-
adequate 80-calorie ones. Certainly larger appearing than my husband's!*
When comparing to others, you might think—“She’s only eating a salad, why is that not okay for me?” or “Why do I need to work out when none of my coworkers do?” You may look at a friend and wonder how they can eat whatever they like when you have to be more mindful, or else your weight climbs out of your healthy range with no effort. Patients get frustrated when they report that their coworkers eat fast food and “junk food” and their weight is just fine, whereas they have to work hard and watch everything they eat. But they aren’t with these coworkers 24/7. Who knows what happens the rest of the time. What you see is a small slice of time, which may or may not reflect how any individual really eats.
Maybe they eat lighter when others are around—but make up for it in private. Perhaps they eat more only when they’re out with friends like you, but restrict when they are alone. Essentially, you have no idea what really goes on when you’re not with them. Unless I asked (and unless he were honest), I’d have no idea that my husband eats the leftover baked goods from work functions when he gets hungry and hasn’t brought enough to eat from home. Or even if he has, yet they are sitting so attractively frosted and displayed in work common areas for all to grab.

What you observe others eat may not be in their best interest—nor in yours. They may be struggling, denying their hunger and feeling fatigue, and preoccupied with food all the time.

He looks sedentary, but you should've seen him run today!
Are you comparing yourself to others for the wrong reasons? Do you let your eating disorder do the comparing as in “She’s having the fries, but I’m going to just order the side salad” or “He’s ordering the large ice cream, so I’ll just get the kiddie sized one.” Not what I’d recommend!

But I’m different

Do you ever think “that’s fine for you, but my body’s different”? You’re not alone! Somehow you may struggle to believe that what’s true for everyone else—that they can eat a range of nutrients including fats and protein and carbohydrate and no foods need be absolutely forbidden—just doesn’t apply to you. In fact, this basic truth does apply! Take a look at this older post:

My FAVorite cupcake place--located in NYC.

There are dangers in comparing your eating with others, as one size does not fit all. Just like food labels should not dictate how much we should be consuming—they merely identify nutrition info—you need to learn just what will meet your body’s individual needs.
And just because they decide to put themselves at risk and jump from the Empire State building doesn’t mean it’s okay for you.

* And for the record, I had a Napoleon pastry late afternoon and take out Japanese for dinner--with some nice Chardonnay. And if you asked, I'd tell you there were a few other items, too.

Please share your thoughts and let me know you’re out there reading!


  1. Visit yes, read, not so much. I have spent 60 years living the food addiction / disordered eating / eating disorder / maladaptive eating / excessive appetite drive / temptation / food misinformation / obesity / overrun food desire / willful overeating / overeating issue, and still have not found a true solution. Some things help, some not. We all have a choice, continue what helps, or not. It is your choice. We all do what we need to do. No more, no less. It is maintaining the attitude to keep doing that becomes difficult.

    Eating rules work because they remove poorer choices from being choices. You may rail against rules, but some things are just not food. Or I can just ignore your opinions that do not work for me.

    1. Something only 'works' if it's sustainable, and without secondary consequence. If what you are doing is truly working, that's great.

  2. It has been my bodies signals that has been the problem for the last 60 years. If I listened, I would be dead, or massive. The problem can be a physical neroendrocrine issue.

  3. I do this all the time. I also would be unable to count the times I say to my therapist, "I don't understand how you eat and are skinny." (She has never had an ED and is thin and it really bugs me). When I'm on an airplane, for example, I feel like I shouldn't eat because the person next to me will look at me and think, "She shouldn't be eating that." I feel like people always expect me to eat the low-fat, low-cal, healthy option, so if I stray and how something that I don't usually eat, I get comments like, "I can't believe you're eating that." I compare myself to every skinny person out there who is eating something that I maybe would like to eat and think, "How come she can eat that and be a stick?"

    I read this post as I sit here and ponder what to eat/make for lunch. I think, yogurt...then I think about the post where you wrote that yogurt is not lunch. :( It's so easy to just eat that and not have to think about it.

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    2. Preplanning may help you have other convenient but more varied and adequate items around. Try some recipes on this blog, like barley black bean salad or the wheat berry salad.

  4. I feel jealous of someone else's pastries even though I have my own, because variety is appealing. But food needs are so varied, depending on weight loss/gain, activity, gender, age. As a kid I didn't feel jealous that adults got to eat more, because that more means more vegetables and beans as well as dessert. in the summer food is so amazing, it needs no work, but in the winter I wish I had a cook to make me a new food every meal, instead of leftovers again. Its always funny when I eat my lunch with friends who covet my plain which I would gladly trade.

    1. It may helps to preplan some varied meals in the winter to keep meals more interesting!

  5. I freaking am so guilty of this!!! I LOVE to eat and I eat A LOT!!! (see blog posts.... tee hee ) but if I count my portions and it fits in my plan I seem to feel like I need to be eating less... well she is eating less and is she... hummm thinner than me? heavier than me? dang how much cardio is she doing?

    stop it Karla!!!!!!!
    compare myself to myself, challenge only myself. We are uniquely beautiful and I so often forget this

    1. Nice to see the healthier voice emerge! Yes, there's work to be done to accept what we each need!

  6. I keep trying to post this comment, I don't think it's being edited out so I'm trying one last time...Comparing is a big part of my eating disorder - your post makes me realize that it is probably the case for many who have and eating disorder. It takes up a lot of time and brain space. I compare, the way you described, what other's eat, how they look. I compare sizes - but part of that is that I am always trying to figure out what I look like. I cannot see myself accurately, so sometimes I look at other women and try to figure out "is my leg like her leg", etc. I compare workouts, intake, diets, carbs, no carbs, dessert, no dessert. It goes on and on. I now have a better understanding that our bodies are all different and we all need different things. I just wish that I could accept my body as it is. I do not think that being thin is the answer to all my problems or that it will result in perfect happiness, but feeling good about my body does/has/would make me feel a little bit better. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  7. Hi Lori, thanks for all your posts. Long time reader here and I've been wanting to ask your opinion on something, I hope that's okay?

    Basically, do you think that people should not eat 'hyperpalatables' (junk food, sweet stuff etc) during refeeding? And is 'hyperpalatable food' a valid concept at all? I'm asking because another blog that I read often and have always respected (Julie O'Toole's blog/the Kartini Clinic) posted recently that fear foods like 'junk food' shouldn't be used as part of exposure/normalising eating because there's no need to include them in a healthy diet, and that 'hyperpalatables' should be avoided for at least the first year of refeeding in anorexia due to the danger of bingeing. I guess I felt really troubled by this and I wanted to know what you thought because I've benefited a lot in the past from your wise and thoughtful perspective on things. I don't have access to a dietitian at the moment (I've weight-restored on my own and am going through the recovery process pretty much alone) and it's hard to know what to believe/trust. Thank you so much!

  8. Thanks, anonymous, for writing in--and for the kind words! No, I don't believe that any foods need be avoided--even in the refeeding stage. That said, I recommend certain safeguards to help prevent binging on so called hyper palatables. For instance, it's critical to eat regularly through the day to avoid excessive hunger, particularly as metabolic rate increases along with hunger. I also recommend only one new 'risk' food be introduced at a a time. More choice is not a great thing at this stage. And finally, focusing on behaviors really helps; lots written on this blog on this, including things like, separating eating from distraction and really using your senses to take in and enjoy the food. Keeping back ups around--another package of the same favorite cookies--but kept in the freezer, out of sight, helps too. Food to Eat also summarizes this and includes, for this very reason, a chapter on baked goods and why we NEED them!

  9. Hi Lori, I've been reading you for a little while. I appreciate you work, though sometimes it feels like it's mostly aimed at people with a history of anorexia or bulimia or something and not the other way around, like [emotional] overeating (?). Which is my problem, I guess. So sometimes I just seem have a hard time relating to your advice.
    I acknowledge the fact that everybody has different bodies and different needs calorie-wise, fat-wise, etc.. But like most people, I've compared what I eat to others, too. I just don't like the fact that someone else's caloric needs might be more than mine, and therefore it feels like I don't have a "right" to eat as much. For example, there are regular people who can eat (and/or require) a normal 2,000 calories a day or more. But I know from my own experience that I most likely require much less than that to maintain a steady weight without continually gaining (damaged metabolism from lifelong dieting? There's so many theories out there so who the hell knows if it's just the "natural" state of my body or not). And it pisses me the hell off because it always feels like I *should* diet purely because I can't keep a steady weight with a normal amount of "average" calories like the "average" person. So automatically, every single day, I should be on a diet of probably 1500 calories to maintain my weight without slowly gaining forever, much less *lose* the weight I should lose.
    I've dieted on and off my entire life, and the last diet I was on scarred me irreparably. It was a "program" by a "medical doctor" in the weight-loss industry working to make people lose weight so they don't have to get gastric bypass (my weight wasn't high enough for surgery, but still higher on the "obese" end of the BMI chart--which he faithfully used). Of course it sounded great at first, but it was much too strict for me and I became more depressed than ever (meanwhile the doc "couldn't understand" why I wasn't happy when losing weight). After six months of it I was able to bail only because I had to move to another state--thank God. It took at least a year to stop restricting or feeling [so] guilty (I still do), and I gained back all of my weight and then a lot more--predictably.
    It just seems like "normal" or "average" is even unattainable anymore, and it's severely discouraging.
    I like your blog though. It's a good a good breath of fresh practicality that I need sometimes.

    1. Yes, my blog is targeted to those with all kinds of eating disorders, as well as chronic dieters and those feeling ruled by rules--so some of the posts simply may not apply to you.
      It's appalling to hear about the MD who prescribed such a restrictive and inappropriate approach. A sensible MD to read is Yoni at Weighty Matters--see his link to the right--and thanks for reading!

  10. Your post made me realize how much comparing is a part of my eating disorder. It takes up a lot of time and brain space. I compare workouts, intake, diets, carbs, no carbs, dessert, no dessert, size, goes on and on. I realize that our bodies are all different - as are our needs. I would like to get to a place where I can accept my body and not always be hunting for ways to 'improve' it. Feeling good about oneself can certainly improve state of mind. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  11. Really, everyone should individually approach his/her body. Those labels on foods cannot dictate our nutrition program; we should listen to our body, soul and mind to find out its needs and live according to them.

    This approach will not only lead to our success in weight loss, but to whole transformation in all areas of our life.

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