Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you? #tbt

Today I’m doing a “Throwback Thursday” post where I invite you, once again, to imagine how different life would be if we actually lived in a world where size doesn’t matter. Happy Thursday!

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s…

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Why I’m glad I stopped worrying about sugar and other weird food obsessions

I had a funny exchange the other day on Facebook. There was a link about the dangers of the cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese. I commented on my friend’s post that when we can, we should rely on whole foods to make mac and cheese. Being an American, my friend thought I meant the food chain Whole Foods, which is not so cheekily known as Whole PayCheque for the high cost of it items.

Image: White bowl with pasta noodles, red tomatoes, and green basil.

Not macaroni and cheese, but my favourite feta, basil and tomato pasta supper.

Nonetheless we had a good chat about how expensive it can be to eat whole, unprocessed foods, and that led us to a whole other thread about clean eating, healthy eating, good foods, bad foods, cheat meals, etc. We weren’t actually talking about our approach to nutrition but the way the words we use to talk about food get co-opted by all kinds of agendas. It’s quite easy to have all sorts of “isms” and attitudes creep in, altering our meaning and twisting our understanding of food as fuel in our lives and how we relate to it in different contexts.

That same day SamB brought my attention to this article about Anthony Warner, described by the Guardian as “(the Angry Chef) who is on a mission to confront the ‘alternative facts’ surrounding nutritional fads and myths.”  Warner writes a blog on food fads, and he doesn’t hold back. He’s now written a book called The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, and I ‘m adding it to my reading list.

That’s because when you start a fitness program, there’s all manner of advice on how to eat, what to eat, and why the one true way (insert your favourite fad — howsoever you define it —  diet here) will be all that you need. Even if your goal is not weight loss, there’s all kinds of recommendations (cough, cough, rules!) on how to eat to train.

Heck, you don’t even have to be training to get food advice. I’m convinced all you have to be is female and not meet someone’s pre-conceived notion of how female should look, for the advice to come pouring in, accompanied by a generous helping of side eye finished with a soupcon of shade, if the advisor deems your food choices not to meet their definition of “healthy” eating.

What appealed to me about Warner is his evidence-based approach. In the article he says: “A lot of the clean-eating people, I just think they have a broken relationship with the truth. (…) They’re selling something that is impossible to justify in the context of evidence-based medicine.” I like science and research and critical thinking. Sadly, there’s too little of it when it comes to talking about food and part of it goes back to the agendas behind the particular terms used.

Warner says our fascination with fads or trends in food and eating is connected with our innate need for certainty. He explains it this way: “We really want to be able to say: ‘Is coffee good or bad for us?’ Well, it’s not good or bad for you, it just is. And we have to accept that; that’s what science says. So your brain goes, ‘I don’t like that level of uncertainty.’ Certainty is really appealing for a lot of people and that’s what a lot of these people are selling – certainly at the darker end.”

And he’s right. The people who have preached to me about gluten free diets when they aren’t celiac are utterly convinced of the rightness of their belief that going gluten-free cured their ills. Equally certain are the people who now look upon sugar with the same fear and revulsion we bring to edible oil masquerading as coffee creamer.

As I survey the speciality food shelves in my local shops, I’m enchanted by all of the interesting food stuffs and yet, truthfully, I am also challenged by how these same items are elevated in social media, on Instagram, and by celebrities to miracle food status. Warner, who lives in the UK and works for a food manufacturer is clear about the limitations food makers face when it comes to making claims about food: “If I made a food product and I wanted to say ‘it detoxes you’, I absolutely couldn’t. There are really clear laws: I can’t say it in the advertising, I can’t say it on the pack, I can’t make any sort of claim that isn’t hugely backed in evidence. But if I wrote a recipe book, I can say what I want.”

If you have been wondering how Gwyneth Paltrow can make pots of money selling her fans coconut oil as a mouthwash and wasp’s nests as a vaginal cleanser, there’s your answer. The trick is to stop engaging in magical thinking when it comes to food and applying some common sense. Warner’s advice: “eat a sensible and varied diet, not too much nor too little. If you have junk food every so often, don’t feel guilty; if you’re going full Morgan Spurlock, you’re probably overdoing it. Eat fish, especially oily ones such as salmon and mackerel, when you can. Don’t consume too much sugar, but equally don’t believe people who tell you it’s “toxic” and has “no nutritional value.”

Or you can go the Reader’s Digest version and follow Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Excuse me now, as I forage in the fridge for the leftover maple syrup glazed salmon.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in training exploring a whole new world of food as fuel.




The Trump 25?: Stress, weight gain, and American politics

Image description: A digital scale with a wooden surface which reads 0.0.

Image description: A digital scale with a wooden surface which reads 0.0.

We’ve been writing quite a bit on the blog on the things we do to find peace and relieve stress in tough times. We’ve talked about dog walks, hikes in the woods, yoga, time with friends, and beautiful music.

Mostly those things, in addition to being instrumentally valuable in terms of health and stress reduction, are also valuable for their own sake. It’s just plain good to spend time with friends and appreciate joy in the world.

But I confess that in addition to the things that I want more of in my life, I’ve also been eating a lot of delicious food. Delicious food also is good for its own sake. But I’ve been eating more of it than I like, on reflection, and I haven’t fully appreciated a lot of it. I’ve been eating for comfort, not joy.

Now I’m a defender of eating for comfort. It’s not the worst thing you can do. (For me, and for lots of people, alcohol might be worse. There is also a lot being written right now about drinking one’s way through the next four years. I’ll pass on that.)

Food serves a lot of purposes besides nutrition. My blog post which defends eating to relieve stress is also about what I cooked on the US election night. That post seems sad and naive now. I thought it was going to be a stressful evening but that it would all end okay. I confess too that when things started to go bad, I found refuge in sleep. “Wake me when Hilary wins,” I said to Jeff, before drifting off.


Four years is a long time to be comfort eating. And it turns out I’m not the only person thinking about this.  See Stress Eating is Now an American Pastime Thanks to President Donald Trump.

In an interview in the New York Times TV producer, director and writer Judd Apatow talks about stress eating and gaining weight. He says, “Most of us are just scared and eating ice cream.” Me too. Salted caramel ice cream is this year’s favourite. Sometimes I worry I am going to associate the flavour with Trump trauma.

In another New York Times piece called Trump Made Me Eat It, Joyce Wadler writes that her Greenwich Village Weight Watchers group is talking lots about Trump weight.  Trump tweets, she writes, and instead of your usual low cal yogurt you find yourself reaching for a chocolate croissant.

Barbra Streisand is also tweeting about Trump and food. “Donald Trump is making me gain weight. I start the day with liquids, but after the morning news, I eat pancakes smothered in maple syrup!” the singer tweeted.

Oh, and just in time, a new study seems to show a link between stress, elevated hormones, and obesity. However, the researchers note that they aren’t really sure about cause and effect. After all, in a fat phobic society it might make sense that larger people are stressed out by attitudes towards their bodies. That is, being fat might be stressful (duh!) rather than stress causing overweight.

In all of this, I don’t mean to trivialize politics. Or to make this all about healthy eating. Or even to criticize eating as a way of relieving stress. But I am interested in the choices we make in hard times. What fuels us to engage politically? What choices support our active, politically and otherwise, lifestyles?

How about you? Are you making your usual food choices in these tough months? What’s your plan for eating in the time of Trump?


Image description: An American flag blowing in the wind, against a blue sky with some fluffy white clouds.

Image description: An American flag blowing in the wind, against a blue sky with some fluffy white clouds.

Sugar free September? Good God no?


Image result for sugar free september

We’ve thought a lot about sugar here on the blog. There was Tracy’s plan to dump sugar, your reaction, and her change in plans. See her posts Dumping Sugar: this is not a detox. and Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up.

I’m officially leery of quitting sugar entirely. See Six reasons this feminist isn’t giving up sugar and Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff.

And I think I can safely say, for me at least, I don’t want to open up that particular can of worms again for awhile. However, our experience of blogging about sugar convinced me that it’s controversial and complicated. This issue isn’t easy.

That’s why I was super surprised to see the Canadian Cancer Society advocating Sugar Free September.

About Sugar-Free September

Fancy a month off the sweet stuff to help raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society?

Sugar-Free September challenges you to go sugar-free for 30 days to raise vital funds for the Canadian Cancer Society to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.

Commit to quitting the cookies and brownies, lock up the doughnuts, ditch the candies and kick the sugar habit by signing up to Sugar-Free September and raise money for life-saving research and vital services for people living with cancer.

Most Canadians consume diets high in added sugar, which can lead to excess weight gain. Research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer.

Get your health and body back on track by reducing your intake of food and drinks with added sugars from your diet for an entire month! It’s a great way to learn how easy it is to moderate consumption while also feeling the benefits of healthier eating.

Image result for sugar free september

I worry that this feeds into food fear and that very little good can come of it. I worry that people who want an excuse to adopt a very restrictive diet will find this appealing. And I worry it will hurt people with a history of eating disorders.

But that’s me. I’m the over-thinking worrying sort. Pretty much an occupational hazard!

What do you think? And if you’re doing sugar free September, how’s it going so far?

Image result for worrying


More in praise of moderate weight loss, or it’s okay to celebrate being an alpaca

In a much older post I made a distinction between those rare, magical creatures, the weight loss unicorns (people who lose a large amount of weight loss and sustain that weight loss) from the more common, but less appreciated, weight loss alpacas (people who lose a small or moderate amount of weight and manage to sustain that weight loss.)

There are at least two different ways to measure long term weight loss success. We can focus on those who maintain a goal weight or on those who maintain a weight loss of just five or ten percent of their starting weight. By that more easygoing measure, I’m in, I’m a success story. Lots more people are in even if we don’t typically think of only losing 5-10 percent of your body weight, a weight loss success story.

Call the people who meet standard 1, getting to goal and staying there, the unicorns. They are rare. Far more common are people who meet standard 2, exotic but not unfamiliar. Call them the weight loss alpacas. I’m a weight loss alpaca! (I’ve got a soft spot for alpacas.)

Savita notes in her recent analysis of the Biggest Loser study that one thing people miss is that some of the participants did keep some of the weight off. Again, small amounts but it’s not nothing.

Why does this count as failure?

Yoni Freedhoff often suggests we should change our standards and count as successful those people who lose and keep off small or moderate amounts of weight.

I think what hampers people more than anything else with weight loss is how success has been defined. Whether that definition comes from the glorification of extreme weight loss on idiotic television shows, or from public health messaging around the risks of obesity, or doctors discussing “normal” weights or body mass indices with their patients, or from personally held desires, the shared goal post is one of losing every last bit of excess weight.

When we look to those folks, my alpacas, three things stand out:

First, the moderate weight loss seems to be easier to maintain.

Second, there are more of them. Unicorns are rare but alpacas aren’t.

Third, they get most or all of the health benefits of weight loss.

Gretchen Reynolds says the same thing in her recent Globe and Mail piece on weight loss.

So what hope is there for weight maintenance?

Anecdotal reports by people who have succeeded in keeping weight off tend to have a common theme: constant vigilance, keeping close track of weight, controlling what food is eaten and how much (often by weighing and measuring food), exercising often, putting up with hunger and resisting cravings to the best of their ability. Those who maintain a modest weight loss often report less of a struggle than those trying to keep off large amounts of weight.

So here’s the question for further thought. Why don’t we celebrate modest weight loss?

Here’s some of my thoughts.

I’m with Yoni Freedhoff that we stigmatize overweight so much that we can’t believe we should count as a success people who are still very much overweight.

But more significantly, I think as long as we focus on looks, and think of weight loss in terms of getting down to normal BMI, or some ideal weight, we’re getting something seriously wrong. To my mind that’s where Weight Watchers and other commercial weight loss programs go wrong.

Let’s start cheering for the alpacas and celebrating small amounts of weight lost and maintained.

A mind full of mindfulness—sorting out and lining up elements of change

Last Sunday I went to off to a five-day workshop on mindfulness and behavior change at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The actual title of the workshop is The Kripalu Approach to Diet: An Integrative Weight Loss Program, but it was really almost entirely about ways to incorporate mindfulness into our lives to promote our own health goals.

I am totally down with this.  For years I’ve been (trying to) incorporate mindfulness techniques for stress reduction around everything, including eating.  I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course that incorporated meditation and yoga, and off and on I’ve used meditation CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn,the originator of the program.

Lately, though, my meditation practice has been way more off than on.  Which has not been good.  Since returning from my sabbatical in Australia, I’ve been struggling with anxiety and sadness.  My long-term relationship ended over the past year, a body blow that’s taking a very long time to recover from.  I have wonderful friends and colleagues and community for support, which is a blessing.  I restarted yoga in January, thanks to my friend Norah and the lovely and welcoming  Artemis Yoga studio near my house (thanks to you, too, Liz!)  I’ve been back on the bike, training for the PWA Friends for Life Bike Rally, too.  All of this has helped.

But still I’ve been eating and  in ways that make my body feel bad, and not moving enough in ways that make my body feel good.  Enter Kripalu program as vacation from my stuck habits, in hopes of getting myself unstuck.

It worked.

Really?  What does that mean?

This:  we did a bunch of practices at Kripalu, uninterrupted by phone or internet (access and use are severely restricted).  No laundry or bill paying or dog walking or meal preparation or grading (actually, I finished submitting my grades while there– what can you do?) or driving, or any of those things that take up our time and head space.

Let me say that I am excruciatingly aware of the position of extreme privilege I was (and am) in.  This program is expensive and time-consuming, both very scarce and precious resources that almost all of the planet doesn’t have.  And I am grateful that I have what I have (another blog post on this issue later on).

The practices we did included daily yoga, meditation, movement, discussion and sharing in our group (18 women and one man), some powerpoint lectures on weight and nutrition (more on those in later posts), guided writing exercises, and mindful eating at exquisitely delicious meals.

Seriously, the food here is so unbelievably good (and mostly vegan and vegetarian), that I recommend a trip here just to chow down.  And the chef, Jeremy Rock Smith, gives cooking demos that are as hilarious as they are useful.  You can find a zillion of his yummy recipes here.

There is also a 5-week online followup component of the course, with online discussion, weekly phone meetings, and lots of opportunities to interact, reflect and write about the processes we are going through.

My biggest revelation from the past week is twofold:  1) I get full very quickly when I eat mindfully (that is, while not distracted).  Seriously, what seems to me like a small amount of food fills me up in a comfortable satisfied way.  Huh– interesting.  2) I get hungry 1–2 hours before the next meal, but the hunger isn’t painful or unpleasant or compelling.  It is a feeling that comes and goes, and once I eat, it goes away again.  I’m hungry right now while typing this, but it’s not a bad feeling at all.  I will get around to eating as soon as I finish the blog.

Right now, what’s in line for changes are a few things.  As best I can, get rid of artificial sweeteners in my diet.  I got back on diet coke and also artificially sweetened ice tea mix.  There’s some evidence that they are correlated with increased risk of weight gain, type I diabetes, and some other conditions, but the jury is still out.  However, I’m getting rid of them.  The diet coke is very bad for my acid reflux, so out it goes (again).

I’m also eating at least one meal a day silently, and working on eating more meals undistracted by phone, internet, TV, radio, or even reading.  At Kripalu every breakast was silent for everyone at the center.  Eating breakfast silently is super-satisfying. It’s not boring at all. I know you don’t believe me even a little bit. But that’s okay. I didn’t believe it either. Until now.

I’m also focusing on meditating each day, right after coffee and before breakfast. I simply cannot even countenance meditating right after waking up. I must be caffeine-fueled in order to focus on anything other than “where’s the caffeine”.  Don’t judge me.

I’m planning one week at a time. Right now the focus is movement—continuing bike training, and planning on activity during a conference this week. I fly to Dallas Wednesday for a conference, and fly home Sunday.  Maintaining movement and eating that is healthy-for-me is always a challenge while traveling.  I’ve put together a plan, with backup options.

As always, this is a work in progress.  So many things came up at this workshop that it’s going to take a long time to sort them out, line them up, and either put them in place or say “no thank you” to them.  So stay tuned.

Before you go, though, check this out:  Kripalu will, for the low low price of $30, take a photograph of your aura.  They have a machine for this.  Who knew?  🙂 So here’s mine– I’m all green (love) and blue (communication).  This machine definitely has my number.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 12.03.25 PM

Namaste, y’all– have a great week.




Extreme Dieting and Metabolic Adaptation: The “Biggest Loser” Dataset (Guest Post)

Let me start by stating that I am NOT a fan of the reality show, “The Biggest Loser”. The idea of sentencing obese people to 30 weeks’ hard labour and extreme food restriction under intense public scrutiny in the name of losing weight is basically torture for entertainment.

I saw some of them on a trip to southern Utah some years ago. While my husband and I were hiking in the magnificent desert of Snow Canyon State Park, these poor souls were marching along the road, heads down, sweating, panting, and really not having fun.

But was it worth it in the end? Did their strict 30-week regimen instill in them the discipline to maintain their now lean and mean bodies? Surely their metabolism had improved, and they were now fat-burning machines as a result of the 5 hour/day intense exercise.

A recent paper in the journal Obesity (Fothergill et al 2016 Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition”) addressed that very question. The authors conducted a very interesting study in which 14 of the 16 original “Biggest Losers” were recruited for follow-up studies on their metabolism and body composition. They had collected data from these subjects at three time points: before the competition, immediately after the competition, and 6 years after the competition.

Here are what I think are the most interesting findings of the study:

  1. While the subjects did regain weight, there was a mean weight loss of about 12% of body weight, and 8 out of the 14 participants in the study (57%) maintained at least 10% weight loss over the 6 years. That’s actually a pretty great outcome compared to most weight loss programs, where most people regain all of the weight within 1 year. 10% is really important, because some metabolic parameters can greatly improve after that kind of weight loss. In other words, it’s a very meaningful and significant weight loss outcome.
  2. The subjects maintained their high levels of physical activity. This is important, because….
  3. ….their Resting Metabolic Rates (RMRs) dramatically decreased at the end of the competition, and did not go back up, even after 6 years of maintaining their exercise regimen. This is called “metabolic adaptation”. The more weight the subjects lost, the slower their RMRs became.
  4. The most surprising finding was that metabolic adaptation did not correlate with weight regain. In other words, despite regaining weight, their RMRs remaining low, meaning that these subjects would probably have a low RMR permanently.
  5. Finally, the decrease in RMR did not correlate with changes in hormones and metabolites. Much has been made about changes in the circulating levels of the hormone Leptin. By the end of the competition, plasma leptin levels dropped dramatically (from 41 ng/ml to 3 ng/ml), but by 6 years, levels were up to 28 ng/ml; not quite normal, but it was increasing. Leptin is a hormone made by adipose tissue, and is secreted to tell the brain that the body has had enough to eat (what we call a “satiety signal”). Other metabolic hormones, such as thyroid hormone, did not change from baseline, and cholesterol levels did not change.

So, to summarize, these people did maintain some weight loss, but at the cost of their resting metabolic rate. Their metabolism has been permanently altered. Or, as Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says, destroyed.

This study also showed that exercise does NOT have much impact on RMR. So all that exercise did not alter their body weights’ “set point” value.

However, these subjects clearly showed that they had a tremendous amount of discipline in maintaining their exercise regimen, probably because they were under intense public scrutiny. And most of them did maintain a 10% weight loss over the long term. So perhaps “biology is NOT destiny”, and a disciplined approach to lifestyle changes really can result in sustained weight loss.

So if exercise doesn’t increase RMR, what about diet? It was expected that the RMRs would reset back to their original values once the weight was regained, but that didn’t happen. So the lowering of RMR after that kind of dramatic weight loss is persistent, and may be permanent. The implications are that the subjects would have to eat far less than the recommended 2500 calories per day in order to maintain their original degree of weight loss. You’ve heard that some subjects had an “800 calorie handicap”, meaning that they would have to consume no more than 1700 calories per day just to maintain their weight loss. That would mean that these people would literally be hungry all the time. That is the direct result of a persistently damaged metabolism.

My take on this is that is it far, far better to simply exercise and get healthy and strong no matter what your weight. The scorched earth policy of The Biggest Loser will result in some weight loss, but at the cost of a permanently damaged metabolism.

savita (1)

Savita is a scientist and professor in London, Ontario. When she’s not in the lab investigating the causes of diabetes, she’s in the pool trying to keep up with her Masters swim teammates, or in a nice downtown restaurant enjoying local food and craft beer.