body image · diets · eating · eating disorders · fat · food

Weight Watchers is going after children and Sam thinks that’s extra awful

As you may know, if you’re a blog regular, I hate Weight Watchers.

They’re now marketing to children, offering free classes with parent’s permission. See here.

Rebecca Scritchfield writes,

“Weight Watchers this week announced its plans to offer free six-week memberships to kids as young as 13, beginning this summer. The company’s move is part of a bigger plan to grow revenue and a loyal customer base for life. (Start ’em young, right?) As a health professional and mother, I am appalled. With celebrity names such as Oprah Winfrey, who is on the board of directors, and DJ Khaled, the latest spokesperson for Weight Watchers, the company is on track to exert powerful influence on people far and wide. Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this “free” membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are “problems,” and if you’re at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. Thus, kids of all sizes will have something to fear.”

There are many problems with this plan but even if you just care about weight, it’s a disaster.

Study after study shows that early dieting is a huge predictor of weight gain.

The reasons aren’t clear. See Why does dieting predict weight gain in adolescents? Findings from project EAT-II: a 5-year longitudinal study.

I’m one of those kids who joined Weight Watchers and attended with my parents’ permission. I’m not sure if and how that contributed to future weight gain but I do know that I wasn’t really that chubby when I started.

I also know it made me think of myself as someone whose weight, whose body, was a problem to be solved. Best tackle it while you’re young, people would say.

It did start the habit of dieting that persisted through my teens and twenties.

What do you think of Weight Watchers, diets, and weekly weigh ins for children?

Bowls of fruit
Three bowls of breakfast berries, photo by Unsplash
eating · fitness

Comfort eating– it’s not gonna kill you, and may even be beneficial (says science)

The holiday season is in full swing now, replete with holiday foods.  At my sister’s house, this means a big ham, loads of cookies, pimento cheese for crackers, and other really rich foods that we don’t eat much of other times of year.

The holiday season is also hectic.  For me this means parties and fun holiday events, the frenetic pace of turbo-grading, getting ready to fly to see family with a large checked bag of gifts (trying not to forget my toothbrush), and then hanging out with them, not in my home eating and activity environment.

Enter comfort eating.  I kind of hate this term, because it’s super judgy.  I mean, we eat.  Food comforts us sometimes.  We enjoy that feeling of satisfaction from eating the food.  What’s the problem?

Health and medicine folks often talk about comfort eating as eating in response to loneliness, anxiety, and sadness.  The idea is that comfort eating represents a mis-match of sorts:  we feel a certain way, but our response is confused.  Instead of eating, we should (according to one of three gajillion websites on this):

  • phone a friend (or text if phoning is even more stressful)
  • relax and stretch
  • write in a journal
  • sleep
  • rant
  • make a list
  • breathe

Right.  Oddly enough, plopping down to write in a journal seems like a less feasible and efficient response than a brownie when I’m at yet another party, overtired and under-exercised.

But it’s comfort eating!  It’s so bad for you!  You MUST find something else to do, as it will kill you in the end.  I mean, this is serious– so serious that the internet is filled with all sorts of lists containing every possible thing you might do INSTEAD of eating something to comfort you.  And their ludricrousness is in proportion to the panic that the very idea of comfort eating provokes. Like this:

A big list, saying DO THIS instead of snacking, with sublists-- need something to do?, and are you really hungry?.
A big list, saying DO THIS instead of snacking, with sublists– need something to do?, and are you really hungry?.

Someone must be really worried about what might happen if people got it into their heads that comfort eating was a viable response to, well, discomfort in their lives.  And the idea that I should do ANYTHING– including learning 10 yoga poses or cleaning out my closet– rather than eat a donut says more about the list-makers than the comfort eaters themselves, don’t you think?

Is comfort eating  all that bad for us?  As usual, the answer is complicated.  But a new study came out this month by UCLA researcher Janet Tomiyama and her colleagues, concluding that

“Comfort eating—irrespective of consuming high-fat/sugar food—may be associated with reduced (my emphasis) mortality in older adults because it may promote greater body mass, and greater body mass is associated with lower risk of mortality (me again with the emphasis) in nationally representative samples. Interventionists might consider both beneficial and detrimental aspects of comfort eating across the lifespan.”

Yes.  this.  I had to read it through carefully again myself.  Here’s the deal.

We know that people of every age engage in comfort eating.  It reduces stress responses. There’s also some evidence that it may contribute to poorer metabolic health (i.e. insulin resistance, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, some other conditions as well).

Less research has been done on the effects of comfort eating in older adults (generally this means over 50).  Tomiyama and her group’s results are surprising to the general public, as they show both lower all-cause mortality risk for comfort eating among older adults, and  they show that high-fat/high-sugar content consumption doesn’t increase the risk:

…regardless of how much high-fat/sugar food participants consumed, greater comfort eating was related to lower odds of all-cause mortality because it was associated with greater body mass,(my emphasis again) which may be important for longevity in older adults.

The paper itself is pretty interesting, so check it out here if you like.  They raise a bunch of questions, too, like:

  • What are the psychological and physiological effects of comfort eating via meals vs. snacks?
  • Are the stress-reduction effects of comfort eating (e.g. reduced cortisol production) more important for health in later life than earlier in the lifespan?
  • Do older adults tend to comfort eat healthier energy-dense foods than younger people do? If so, why?

Of course, as they say, all this is strictly academic… What does it mean for us at this time in the winter season?  Not so much.  We do what we do, and you do you– I’m not offering any advice at all.

But science is saying clearly in this case that comfort eating– a ubiquitous, feared,  much vilified practice– may actually play some adaptive health role for older people.

Of course we can all own our particular eating practices, and can tell people to mind their own beeswax if they try to steer us away from the cookies and toward the celery, citing health concerns.  But it doesn’t hurt to have science on our side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

diets · eating · food

Food demonizing and the perils of “all or nothing” thinking

There’s an article making the rounds and it’s recycling an old idea: “Nice ‘Health’ Foods You’d Be Better off Avoiding.” The recycled idea: some foods are evil. We’ve blogged a couple of times about this already. See my “Why Food is Beyond Good and Evil” and “Let’s Think Differently about Healthy Eating,” and Catherine’s “Beyond Good and Evil (Food)” and her follow-up the next week.

My big theme is about food moralizing and how just makes things worse. You’re not “good” because you ordered the salad instead of the fries. You’re not “bad” because you ordered the fries instead of the salad. Fruit juice isn’t “evil.” Celery sticks aren’t “virtuous.” It’s all food.

So what’s on the latest list? Some familiar items that people like to label as “bad”: fruit juices and smoothies (because sugar); granola (because sugar); fat-free or low-fat things (because sugar); dried fruit (because sugar); agave nectar (because sugar). Then there were a few surprises: almond milk (because not as much protein as cow’s milk); gluten free unless you’ve got celiac disease (because sugar and fat); coconut oil (because saturated fat); and vegetable chips (because fat and salt).

What’s really being demonized here, if you read the explanations? Mostly sugar. Next culprit: fat. And finally, salt.

Now here’s the thing. I don’t have any quarrel with the idea that if all of the foods I ever chose to eat were sugary dessert-type foods, my diet would be lacking in nutritional value. It goes without saying that the body requires a diversity of nutrients and that means branching out into veggies, whole grains, and foods that are rich in protein.

I also like Catherine’s point about being a food pragmatist. She says that she and her fellow food-pragmatists “eat what works for us. We figure out what works through a complicated process of experimenting, reading and learning, forming some goals for ourselves about what health means to us, taking into account our preferences and constraints (economic, social, geographic, cultural, etc.).”

I’m also something of a food pragmatist these days. It’s the evolution of my successful transition to intuitive eating. There are foods that do not work for me (garlic — I cannot digest it in anything but the smallest of quantities; fried foods at lunch time — they make me want to sleep).

That’s not the fault of these foods. As Catherine and I both say, different foods are neither good nor evil. They just are. Maybe they agree with you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe some have more nutritional value than others, but nutritional value isn’t the only reason we eat. Think of the central place socializing and celebrating around food has in just about any culture you can think of.

When we demonize foods and decide that we will never eat something because it is “bad” (even if we like it), we generate a feeling of deprivation and temptation. It’s human nature often to want what we (think) we can’t have. I see this all the time around food.

Last night I was out for Indian food and at the end, when I was already satisfied and done, they brought the bill along with a mini-chocolate for each person. Instead of pocketing mine, I opened it. I took one bite and realized that not only was it not a good chocolate, I simply didn’t want it. So I left half of it on the table in the wrapper. One of my companions noticed and said “aren’t you virtuous, eating only half a chocolate?”

And a few weeks ago a box of Cinnabon cinnamon rolls ended up in our office. A whole box. As a food pragmatist, I know one thing if I know anything: those things give me a headache.  So terrible is the headache I get from them that I do not feel the least bit tempted to eat even half (nevermind that they are decidedly un-vegan). But the whole day everyone in the office was treating the Cinnabons as if they were the embodiment of the devil. I really shouldn’t was either explicitly said or implicitly conveyed in the guilty look people had as they slunk back to their offices to enjoy their decadent treat in private.

I don’t know, but when I’m going to enjoy something that I think is a delicious treat, I’m going to enjoy it wholeheartedly. I’m not going to proclaim how many times a week a person “should” eat a cinnamon roll or what else they might want to include in their daily diet, but I can promise you that no one in the office lives on these things. They were special treats to be enjoyed. If regarded instead as something that you “shouldn’t” have but are having anyway, then the full potential of savouring it in all of its delicious glory falls to the wayside.

All or nothing is not a great strategy and can work against us.

There are exceptions. Sometimes, as Catherine said about her and pasta, there are things that for whatever reason we have a lot of trouble being moderate about. But again, that doesn’t make them demons for everyone. I am fully abstinent when it comes to alcohol. That’s not because alcohol is inherently evil. It’s  because it’s not something that works for me (pragmatist).

Do you demonize foods? Is it working for you?

diets · eating · fitness · Throwback Thursday · weight loss

Let’s Talk about the Myth of the Skinny Vegan Bitch #tbt

Here’s a #tbt for you from four years ago. Though I would venture that veganism is more popular now than it was then, and is gaining followers all the time, myths still abound. And one of them is that you’ll get skinny real fast if you opt to eat a thoroughly plant-based diet. You won’t necessarily lose weight at all. But that’s not a reason not to try it. Another myth is that you can’t possibly retain muscle if you’re vegan. You can! I’ll write about that sometime next month. Meanwhile, enjoy this old post. I’m vegan, but I’m neither skinny nor a bitch (or so I like to think anyway)!
Tracy

FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

vegan-food-cc-300x400Here’s how the first installment in the Skinny Bitch series (authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin) starts:

Are you sick and tired of being fat?  Good. If you can’t take one more day of self-loathing, you’re ready to get skinny...

This is not a diet. This is a way of life. A way to enjoy food. A way to feel healthy, clean, energized and pure. It’s time to reclaim your mind and body. It’s time to strut your skinny ass down the street liek you’re in an episode of Charlie’s Angels with some really cool song playing in the background. It’s time to prance around in a thong like you rule the world. It’s time to get skinny.

It sounds almost empowering.  Almost.

The first red flag?  If you’re full of self-loathing then…wait for it…getting skinny is the answer!  If that’s not clear from the introduction, it is made…

View original post 656 more words

eating · eating disorders · fitness

I love air too, but not for lunch

Image description: a colour image of smooth stones--white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has "Just breathe" etched into it.
Image description: a colour image of smooth stones–white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has “Just breathe” etched into it.

I’ve been blogging recently about food alarmism, that annoying tendency some people have to demonize certain foods by talking about how they’ll kill you.

But the most out-there food fad that’s ever come to my attention has got to be “breatharianism.” Sam sent me a link to “‘Breatharian’ couple survives on ‘the universe’s energy’ instead of food.”

This couple–Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello–claims that humans don’t need food and water, that they can survive on the ‘energy of the universe’ alone. Apparently, since 2008 “they have survived on a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just three times a week.” Castello claims to have eaten nothing during the entire nine months of her pregnancy with her first child. Since she wasn’t used to feeling the sensation of hunger, she says, she “lived fully on light and ate nothing.” Considering pregnant women are meant to eat more not fewer calories to support the growing fetus, it doesn’t sound like the best approach to pregnancy.

She said living on air in the breatharian lifestyle also cured her PMS. Ricardo made the astute observation that “breatharianism” is a great way to slash the cost of your food bills.  Now that they have two children, they eat from time to time so they can share that experience with the kids. Castello says:

“Now, Akahi and I eat very sporadically — perhaps three or four times per week at the most. I might have a few vegetables, a juice or a bite of an apple with my children. Sometimes we have a glass of water too.”

“Whenever I eat now, it’s not because I’m hungry — I just don’t remember that sensation.”

Okay. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person who believes in reserving judgment and letting people live their lives as they wish, with the rough qualification that they not harm others. This pair claims not to impose their breatharian lifestyle on their children.

But when they say they don’t eat and instead exist only on the ‘universe’s energy,’ my first thought is that they have to be lying. I’m no scientist (or mystic), but I think we can say with a fair bit of confidence that you can’t live on ‘universal energy’ alone. My second thought is that okay, so they might eat something (a piece of fruit here, veggie broth there, the occasional glass of water every few days), but it’s not enough.  In reading about their approach, it’s not exactly that they demonize food.  They just consider it unnecessary. Food is not unnecessary. Granted, the air we breathe is also necessary. But surely it’s not sufficient to sustain a person? Don’t we have all sorts of science to back this up? This approach to eating, where the end result is to lose the sensation of hunger and eat very little (if not nothing) sounds alarmingly like an eating disorder.

It seems that I’m not the first person to question the veracity and sense of their claims. After the first article (quoted above), they released a clarificatory statement explaining that they actually do eat a bit more than they originally said:

“We do eat, just not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person,” the couple said in a statement to The Post Wednesday. “When we went through the ‘Breatharian’ transition 21-day process, our intention wasn’t to stop eating, but rather to heal on a genetic level, information that gets passed through the generations and manifests in each person in different ways (like ‘hereditary’ information). The not-eating was like a side effect that we freely explored when we were a young couple, without children, and also through Camila’s pregnancy.”

There might be more to it than what I’ve talked about here. They say it involves “conscious breathing” techniques as well. And guess what? They offer courses on that which range in price from $200 to $1700.

The upshot here is this: it’s a variation on a food fad. You can dress it up with “universal energy” and “conscious breathing,” but in the end it’s just another way of depriving yourself of food. I’m the last person to tell people what they should eat. But please, please, eat something. And eat enough.

If you’ve heard of any other equally outrageous food fads, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

 

 

diets · eating · overeating · weight loss

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.

Wrong.

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.
body image · eating · feminism · fitness · health · weight lifting

Finding my fitness spirit animal (Guest post)

I have figured out my fitness spirit animal.

My desire to get in better shape has been a long time coming. I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person who truly enjoys physical activity, who opts for a salad instead of something crunchy and deep-fried. One of my good friends is one of these people. It seems to come to her naturally—she runs marathons for fun and honestly enjoys vegetables. She often says that her spirit animal is a hamster because she can relate to the need to run on a wheel that doesn’t go anywhere—just to burn the energy.

I envy these people. And I cannot relate to them at all.

In the past I’ve related most closely to lazy housecats. Or maybe to a blubbery seal sunbathing on a rock with half-eaten fishtail dangling from its mouth.

 

seal-on-rock

This is how I spent much of the last two years: sprawled out on my couch with Netflix and a family-size bag of chips balanced expertly on my chest. (For you non-snackers, a family-size bag is much bigger than a regular size bag.) I was going through some intense stuff in my personal life and so hibernation seemed the most sensible option for a time when I was feeling so emotionally raw. And don’t get me wrong…I do have some fond memories of nights alone surrounded by blankets and snacks, like any happy seal would. I don’t regret this perhaps necessarily indulgent time in my life. But the problem was that it became a fairly regular habit. From “What the heck, just this once!” to “Oh, maybe I’ll only indulge on weekends,” to “Well, Thursday and Friday are basically the weekend,” and so forth. You get it – it got out of hand.

I think part of the problem was also that I viewed myself as a very physically awkward person, so anxiety around my own physical awkwardness prevented me from taking action sooner. I just never thought of myself as an “athletic person.” And this would always be reinforced when, in the past, I’d be working out and feeling strong and graceful, only to catch my reflection in an ill-placed mirror and suddenly think, Oh God! Is that what I look like right now?? (Have you ever seen a seal try to get around on land? It ain’t pretty.)

 I mean, I probably suffer from an average degree of female-related self-consciousness about my body, but the combination of athletic anxiety and my perceived physical awkwardness didn’t help.

Who knows, maybe it’s that “fitness clothes” (bright and skin-tight) just aren’t that flattering on bodies like mine (soft and curvy with doughy bits). Don’t get me wrong, I do love my body and have admired myself in many a reflection on a good day—I even considered entering a burlesque show once—but by today’s standards of “fitness,” or what it means “to be fit,” I often see myself as too round, soft, and flat out awkward to be an “in shape” person. And it doesn’t help to see people with gazelle-like grace running past me on the street while I get sweaty just from walking around with a backpack on. My idea of what it meant to be active had become too dichotomous.

However, during my time of hibernation, another friend of mine had completely transformed herself from a hard partyer to heavy weight lifter. It was inspiring to see her journey and what appealed to me most about her story was that she had done so with no previous experience or even inclination to make such a change. When I asked her about her experience, she told me that she too had been initially intimidated by fitness culture and by gyms, never daring to try more than the elliptical or treadmill. But the real clincher for me was when she told me she still indulges in homemade desserts and other delicious treats every night. She still has nights sprawled out on her couch with Netflix.

It was a revelation.

Never before had I meant a healthy and fit person with the same lazy, snack-fueled inclinations as myself.

Image result for hamster on a treadmill

I used to think there were two kinds of people: the gazelles and the hamsters of the world who love to run and don’t eat junk food, and the housecats and blubbery seals like me, doomed to lie about on our rocks and couches indefinitely. And while I know that different people have different inclinations (health- and activity-wise), it took me a while to realize that “fitness” is a wide-ranging sliding scale.

I used to think that being healthy and fit meant pretty much never eating fun stuff again, never lazing about guilt-free again. And this would mean that becoming healthier would be changing who I am and giving up some of the things I truly enjoy. It hadn’t occurred to me that incorporating fitness into my life would be about harmonizing my internal athlete and couch potato, my inner hamster and housecat.

While so much of the culture around “being fit” can seem impenetrable, exclusive, and intimidating—especially for someone who has never known quite how to go about it—finding someone who had found a way to take control of her health and wellness in her own way was eye-opening for me. I just had to find my own way that worked for me.

Strangely, I had been afraid that becoming healthier and more active would mean losing a part of myself. But what I learned was that I had it in me the whole time. My fitness spirit animal is still 100% a blubbery seal. But here’s the thing about blubbery seals, they know how to relax on land, but they get down to business under water. They are my fitness spirit animal: the perfect combination of awkward and graceful, blubbery and strong, lazy and active.

img_0177

Tracy de Boer is a real adult lady currently living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy at Western University. She is passionate about the ways philosophy enables people to think critically about everyday life. She is also very sad about the results of the U.S. election. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, @tracyrwdeboer.