Embracing my growing strength

Red and white printed blanket covering a personBy MarthaFitat55

I’m not a big fan of our winter season. The weather is often horrible, spring seems like it will never arrive, and the multiple layers required to survive the cold make going to the gym a chore.

When the sky is blue, and the snow is soft and fluffy, I can work up the enthusiasm to enjoy a walk or a snowshoe. When it is wet and miserable with sleety snow, I want to curl up under my quilt and not surface until May.

Part of my resistance to winter exercise comes from my fear of falling. I have actually fallen several times, with my first reliable memory being a fall at 14 that resulted in a wicked headache.

I have tumbled over icy stairs (that one within earshot of my mother who heard me use language suitable for blistering paint) and I have skidded across parking lots.

I have also fallen indoors, and while I have been fortunate enough not to experience lasting ill effects, as I grow older, my fear of falling has grown exponentially.

I often ask people if they remember the rubber boots many of us wore as kids, and if they specifically recall how stiff and unyielding the rubber would get as we walked to and from school in January and February. Over time the rubber would crack and the wet would seep in.

That’s how I feel my muscles go in the winter cold: hard, inflexible, and yet ready to shatter at the slightest pressure.

Last year, three of my friends and one of my relatives were laid up with broken bones, all women. Two experienced the breaks as a result of slips and falls on icy sidewalks, thus adding to my fear and resistance.

I shouldn’t be surprised: after all, women are four times more likely to have osteoporosis, and one in five is likely to experience a fracture after age 40. The fact is my fear of falling need not be limited to the winter season, given the data.

Since hiding under a quilt is not really an option I can indulge in, I have looked for ways to reduce my risk of falls. I make sure I have good shoes, grippy sneakers, and sturdy boots. I have learned to walk like a penguin, with my feet pointed out, when going up or down hills and across icy surfaces.

I found some really useful tips here on the BC’s government’s health website. One tip which really stood out for me was eating foods high in calcium and Vitamin D. I had found increasing my fish intake was helping with my arthritis, so I wasn’t too surprised that nutrition could help. I had also long known about the calcium connection for bone health, but was not aware of the importance Vitamin D brings to muscle strength.

Last month, I had reason to be grateful for working on my fitness and nutrition. I had noticed increasing tightness and soreness around the hip joint post training and my trainer had noticed some oddities in my form during a subsequent squat session.

I decided to get checked as I was worried that something new was about to be added to the injury roster. I was somewhat startled to learn that it was the same hip problem. When I asked why the symptoms were different, my physiotherapist said my muscle strength had improved significantly over the past year to compensate for my hip moving out of alignment.

When I thought about the other times my hip joint has shifted, I realized several things. First, the time between injury and the onset of discomfort and pain was usually quite short. This time, it was a little over three weeks before things got really sore. Second, the recovery time post alignment was often quite long, with the pain and stiffness taking as much as three to five weeks to disappear. This time, I was really only uncomfortable for about 48 to 72 hours.

So what has this got to do with my fear of falling? I’m still cautious, but now I have developed my core strength so I am strong enough to reduce the impact. I also know my improved nutrition has helped my muscles recover faster from training, and this is also helpful in dealing with stress and injury.

What this means long term, I am not sure yet. For now, I am happy to continue with the work I am doing with the knowledge that I have made a difference in reducing the effects of injury and speeding up recovery.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

The Flu and My Friend’s Fitness Journey (Guest Post)

Last week I got unexpectedly hit with the flu. (Come to think of it, is it ever really expected?) Anyway, it knocked me out hard and I was upset by the rough start to my 2017. (Needless to say I haven’t worked out but proudly made it to a Yin yoga class which my post-flu body could barely handle.)

While I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, I do appreciate a New Year’s reflection on my overall life trajectory. What have I accomplished? What haven’t I? Where would I like to see things going over the next year?

new years ecard.png

New Year’s resolutions for me, like lots of people, tend to fall flat by Week 2. Sam wrote about December 1st as the new January 1st. I actually like the idea of getting a jump on a new year the months leading up to it.

In the fall, I was excited to recommit to my health and fitness. I’ve written here about how I am learning to see myself as an active person who is takes her wellbeing seriously. One of the people who inspired me to make the change in my own life also recommitted to her health and wellbeing exactly one year before I did (she in November 2015, and I in November 2016).

I thought that I would speak more formally with her about her experience, as there are things I recognize as similar about both of our stories: we both started out as relatively active children and young women but became discouraged and anxious about fitness as we got older. We both had multiple false starts over the years, and we both decided to integrate fitness and wellness in our lives around the same time.


Tracy: What does being “fit” mean to you?

Jaclyn: Being fit means loving, embracing and accepting my body for all the amazing things that I can do. This is not to say that now I love my body because it is leaner and has more muscle mass, and that I could not love my body before because I had a much higher body fat percentage. Getting stronger, lifting heavier, and getting my cardio up to a level I didn’t know was possible has led to an appreciation for myself and my body that I never had when I spent most of my days drinking, partying, and subsequently binge eating my hangover away the next day.

Tracy: Since you mention it, regarding your drinking/partying in the past, do you feel like you simply “replaced” those old habits with new ones or is it more complex? (Do you feel like a different person now than you were back then?)

Jaclyn: I think it’s more complex than that. I’m the same person, yet a different person. I think a part of the drinking was me trying to cover over parts of me that I didn’t like (or that I thought I needed to change to be liked). When I began my fitness journey, my new habits (nutrition, fitness, sleep, water intake, etc.) replaced old habits (binge drinking, binge eating, partying).  As my new habits began to slowly weed out and replace my old ones, there was a moment that I realized I was truly and genuinely happy. In that moment, I realized that this new lifestyle fuels me and allows me to be my most authentic and genuine self.

Tracy: That’s so wonderful and it’s been amazing to see your progress. What was your previous experience with fitness? Were you an active child?

Jaclyn: I grew up an active kid; I was on the swim and synchronized swimming teams, played soccer, and did ballet. My family loves to camp, so I’d frequently go canoeing, hiking, swimming and kayaking with them. But gym class was a nightmare for me. As a shy and introverted child, cliques in gym classes (which often involved choosing partners and teams) intimidated me. My intuition was to skip the classes to avoid this.

In undergrad, I joined a couple gyms but never stuck with them because I had no knowledge about what I should be doing, how to use the machines and free weights, or how to bring variety into my workouts and how to eat in accordance with my goals.

I would never even dream of asking someone to show me how to do something, and I was too afraid of being judged using free weighs since I had never used them before.  So, I would go over to the one machine I knew – the treadmill – walk for 40 minutes and leave as quickly as I could.  After a couple weeks, I would get bored of the same old routine and frustrated by the lack of any tangible kind of progress, I would quit the gym.  Looking back, my social anxiety, shyness and introversion were the biggest obstacles for getting into fitness.

Tracy: I think that can be quite common—sometimes people see “gym culture” as macho or unfriendly, especially for someone who is new to working out or not that knowledgeable when it comes to fitness. How did you find this and what strategies did you find helpful in overcoming that?

Jaclyn: As someone with little knowledge about fitness and exercise, and as an introvert with social anxiety, breaking into the gym and developing a consistent routine was a huge obstacle. This time, however, I didn’t want to run; I wanted to face this challenge and move myself into a space where I could walk into a gym and do my routine comfortably.

As I’ve grown with my anxiety, I have learned things that I can do to help reduce attacks.  For example, in a conference setting, the more research I have done on my topic, the more comfortable I felt.  So, this was my first strategy in wanting to become more comfortable at the gym, to gain knowledge.

I’m fortunate that I could afford a starter package with a personal trainer.  My thought process was that if I was willing to spend the money I previously did on booze, then I could certainly take that money and invest in myself and buy some training sessions.  I thought that if I had an expert take me through the gym, show me how to use the machines and show me some free weight exercises, I would feel more confident walking in and doing it on my own.

Further, I thought that if I could learn the basics of form, that when I went on my own I would be less likely to injure myself.  Another alternative to training packages is to take full advantage of the growing fitness industry via social media platforms (such as YouTube). I used this to watch how certain exercises are done, would mimic the motions in the privacy of my own house, and then try them at the gym. Utilizing the knowledge from the training sessions and from my research online helped me feel more confident in the gym.

Tracy: You’ve mentioned your social anxieties, which I think are common for many people, especially when it comes to trying new things. How has fitness allowed you to grow in this area, and allowed you to become less fearful of being judged, etc.?

Jaclyn: In addition to gaining the knowledge necessary to make me more comfortable at the gym, I made sure to go during quieter periods (i.e., not during peak times), especially at the beginning. I would also wear a baseball hat, which almost acted like blinders—it helped me feel more “in the zone” and focus more on myself and less on others around me.

Over time, I became more and more confident in myself and in my place at the gym. The better I became at lifting, the less I worried about being judged.  Moreover, the more I fell in love with lifting, the less I cared about being judged; in fact, I don’t worry at all about this because I know that weight lifting involves stalling on reps, or failing a certain move.  I know saw failure as opportunity to grow and learn – understood that this was part and parcel of the process itself – and so I no longer feared being judged.  This process of working on my anxieties in the gym was by no means a speedy one, but I can now happily say that about one year later, I do not need to wear a hat, and I can walk into any gym, at any time, and get to the grind with no fear and no anxieties.

I found that this newfound confidence in the gym spilled into other aspects of my life.  Looking back at where I started and where I am now made me realize how strong and resilient I am.  It helped me realize what I want out of life, and what I wasn’t willing to compromise.


Tracy: What surprised you most about the new lifestyle that you wouldn’t have expected?

Jaclyn: I never expected to fall in love with fitness and weightlifting like I did, but perhaps more surprising was the humbling self-love and acceptance that arose naturally out of the process.  I have cellulite and big thighs, but this no longer bothers me like it used to.  Instead, I am amazed by how strong and resilient I have become since I started.  I have become humbled by fitness and developed a love for myself that was absent from the larger part of my life.

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Speaking with Jaclyn over the last few months have helped to keep me both motivated and patient with myself. It’s especially helpful when I have my own hang-ups or things that slow me down—like the flu, or like fainting (which I wrote about in last month’s post). I’m grateful to have her as a friend and role model and thank her for letting me write about this so openly in this month’s post!



The latest news on the nutritional merry-go-round: it’s complicated

I’m making egg salad sandwiches for a reception for my friend Lyn’s book reading today. Her book, a memoir, is called “God is not a boy’s name: becoming woman, becoming priest”.  Check it out.

It’s been awhile since I’ve hard-boiled a dozen eggs, so I decided to google the best way to do this—put eggs in before boiling water, boil water first, what?

And what do I find out? Sources don’t agree about this—some say do this, some say do that. They all claim that their way is the best method for getting the perfect hard-boiled egg.

Since all I need here is fully cooked eggs for mashing and making egg salad (with pickle, of course), it does matter very much HOW I cook them; as long as they’re fully cooked at the end, everything will be fine.

However, when it comes to nutritional advice, the stakes seem considerably higher. What we really want is some clarity about how to eat in ways that are healthy (to us) and reduce risks for conditions like diabetes and heart disease.. In the blog we’ve tackled this issue a lot—check it out here and here and here, for instance.

Still, shouldn’t SOMETHING be clear by now? Well, to paraphrase Oprah, it seems like one thing we know for sure is this: diets high in unsaturated fats (like vegetable oils and some fish) are much healthier for your heart than diets high in saturated fats (like animal fats in meats, butter, cheeses). Why? Because a diet emphasizing unsaturated fats lowers your serum cholesterol and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Right?


maybe not


The latest episode in the “what in the world should I eat to be healthy?” saga has an interesting, sort of mysterious twist (relative to nutrition research, which has a low bar for what counts as mysterious). The Minnesota Coronary Experiment, done from 1968 to 1973, controlled and studied the diets of more than 9500 people living in nursing homes and mental hospitals. But—and here’s the twist—the data were not analyzed. Until now…

You can read the interesting backstory here, but the upshot is that the data were just recently found, analyzed and published here. And the results are surprising; here’s an excerpt from the Well blog story:

The results were a surprise. Participants who ate a diet low in saturated fat and enriched with corn oil reduced their cholesterol by an average of 14 percent, compared with a change of just 1 percent in the control group. But the low-saturated fat diet did not reduce mortality. In fact, the study found that the greater the drop in cholesterol, the higher the risk of death during the trial.

The findings run counter to conventional dietary recommendations that advise a diet low in saturated fat to decrease heart risk. Current dietary guidelines call for Americans to replace saturated fat, which tends to raise cholesterol, with vegetable oils and other polyunsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol.

Now that’s a surprise. It turns out that the low-saturated fat diets lowered serum cholesterol but didn’t lower mortality risks—rather the greater drop in cholesterol was associated with a higher mortality risk. How could this be? The researchers have a hypothesis:

One explanation for the surprise finding may be omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in high levels in corn, soybean, cottonseed and sunflower oils. While leading nutrition experts point to ample evidence that cooking with these vegetable oils instead of butter improves cholesterol and prevents heart disease, others argue that high levels of omega-6 can simultaneously promote inflammation. This inflammation could outweigh the benefits of cholesterol reduction, they say.

And there’s more data from other studies to support this unexpected result.

In 2013, Dr. Ramsden and his colleagues published a controversial paper about a large clinical trial that had been carried out in Australia in the 1960s but had never been fully analyzed. The trial found that men who replaced saturated fat with omega-6-rich polyunsaturated fats lowered their cholesterol. But they were also more likely to die from a heart attack than a control group of men who ate more saturated fat.

If you look at the original paper, published in the British Medical Journal, it has an extended explanation and some hypothesizing about the role of lineolic acid (vegetable oils are rich in this, unlike animal fats) in biochemical processes that contribute to heart disease.

But at the very end of the article, it uses a word I’ve never read in a medical journal:

Given the limitations of current evidence, the best approach might be one of humility, highlighting limitations of current knowledge and setting a high bar for advising intakes beyond what can be provided by natural diets.

Humility is the word.




The researchers are acknowledging the complex nature of human metabolic interactions in our current industrial food system, suggesting ways to proceed scientifically with more rigor than we previously have, and offering up humility and modesty as appropriate attitudes for any approach to dietary advice.

In the current maelstrom of competing theories for how to fill my plate, this is advice I can take to heart.

Eat, drink and be merry; or at least drink and be better than meh (Guest post)

by Eleanor Brown

A nerd software engineer in the United States has created Soylent, the liquid food that people love to hate. And yet so much liquid food is already wildly popular, and it’s about to get a huge weather-related boost.

Oh, I know people screech about the importance of slow food, of eating real food, of fill-in-the-blank-food-‘splaining here. Of how liquid food is neither good nor proper. It’s for the lazy, for the evil ones who hate texture and taste and even themselves – the rhetoric is often over the top and hilarious.

Still, as winter falls away, I am finishing up my seasonal supply of liquid food. I’m talking about soups.

And of course, day in, day out, I have a breakfast smoothie. Kale, blueberries, bananas –whatever you put in, it’s going to help you start the day well. I add protein powder, to help support my middle-aged muscles after my daily hour of exercise.

And I write this column on the cusp of spring, leaning into my bedroom window and basking in the idea of sunlight, soon to come. Once that heat finally arrives, I will add to my diet the occasional milkshake, and cookies blended into ice cream. All are liquid foods.

Since so many of us already imbibe, I am surprised by the widespread hatred expressed for Soylent. It comes in a powder (add water), and in small drink bottles, marketed as Soylent 2.0.

Here’s a bit of the PR bumf from the website (at soylent.com): “Each ingredient plays a specific role in whole-body nutrition. A new soy protein isolate adds improved digestion, smoother texture, and a more robust amino acid profile.” An algal oil is “produced efficiently in bioreactors rather than traditional farms to conserve enormous quantities of natural resourceswhile providing energy and essential fatty acids.”

There’s a “slow-metabolizing disaccharide synthesized from beets [that] offers sustained energy without the spikes of refined sugar.” And finally, “Each bottle of Soylent 2.0 is designed to include one-fifth of all essential micronutrients[as in vitamins and minerals].”

Seriously, what’s not to like?

Soylent is even, dare I say, feminist.

There’s nothing wrong with loving to cook. As my career slows down, I have learned later in life to cook real, authentic food. (Careful readers will catch the sarcasm in the use of the word “authentic”.) But the option of inexpensive, nutritionally balanced shakes for meals is a gift to women – and indeed, to anyone – who isn’t interested in a lifetime spent in the kitchen. It’s a gift for busy parents who want to offer a fun “treat”… et cetera. For about $2.50 a serving.

On his vanity website, Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart also writes about the ethics of food. “Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications. And we’re deeply dependent on it. In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation.” He calls Soylent “perhaps the most ecologically efficient food ever created.”

There’s all sorts of implications here. But the product’s name and Rhinehart’s comments are clearly intended to bring to mind the classic sci-fi thriller Soylent Green. In the film, the world has been steadily destroyed by pollution and climate change. Real food – meat, for example – is a black market good that only the super-rich can afford.

For the rest of us, there’s Soylent Green, a nutritious wafer supposedly made of plankton.

The clue to a murder somehow connects to Soylent Green.

(I’m going to ruin the movie’s ending now, because it came out in 1973. More than 40 years ago. Seriously, don’t even think about complaining about this spoiler.)

By the end of the film, it dawns on Charlton Heston exactly where his food is coming from. The state offers euthanasia as a service, and the protein that keeps humanity alive comes from… those euthanasia factories.

In truth, I ordered a case of Soylent bottles for the fun of it. I want to be able to say that I eat people.

There’s a hint of vanilla in Soylent, and it’s a bit wheat-y overall. I like it.

In the movie, Charlton Heston is of course sickened by his discovery. I’m appalled as well. Not by the discovery, but by Heston’s horror.

Humans aren’t eating the flesh of their loved ones. The bodies are expertly decomposed into the building blocks of life.

Remember astronomer Carl Sagan? He famously engaged our imaginations by pointing out that humans are made of star stuff. The carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, the other atoms of this Earth and of our bodies were first created by the stars themselves billions of years ago. “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The atoms of our individual bodies also go back to the earth. And so are remade, reconfigured, recreated into everything around us. And back into us. Everything we eat is people.

Pass the Soylent, please.

Eleanor Brown is a freelance writer. She can be reached at ebjourno at gmail.com. Please do not snail mail perishable food items to her. Tins only.

Eating Vegan: Not necessarily healthy, not necessarily unhealthy

various-fruits-and-vegetables-arranged-by-colorI don’t know why veganism creates such intense reactions in people. You’ve got your non-vegan folks who insist that vegans are undernourished–what the heck do they do for protein? Then, on the other side of it, you’ve got your so-called chefs who assume that grilled veggies make a sufficiently nutritious vegan meal.

There are those who insist that animals were put on this earth for our use, so we should just eat them. Or that plants have feelings too. Or that domesticated animals don’t have it so bad anyway. See a bunch of these arguments and responses to them here.

But today I want to address one issue and one issue only: is a vegan diet healthy or unhealthy?

That’s really a silly question, akin to asking if food is healthy or unhealthy. Some is, some isn’t. Whether your vegan diet is healthy or unhealthy depends on what you eat.

James Fell’s article, “Are Vegan Diets Healthy?” gives a clue as to what gets people’s backs up.  The author objects to “militant” vegans, but admits that only a small minority of vegans are militant.  Being vegan, I can attest to this fact. Most of us quite frequently dine quietly alongside, even with, people who are eating food that we think comes from an industry that promotes unnecessary animal suffering.

Then there is the even less political arm of veganism, those who won’t even use the term. They defer instead to the “plant-based” diet.  These are the folks most likely to be in your face not about the ethics of animal farming, but about the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. They’re purists in a different sort of way, moralizing food choices for reasons that have nothing to do with animal ethics.

Obesity researcher, Yoni Freedhoff, is quoted in the article as saying:

There are some vegan organizations that like to tell people that this is the ticket to weight loss, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. You can have plenty of vegan calories as well. Going vegan does not necessitate a healthy weight.

I’ve blogged before about the sad truth that going vegan doesn’t produce a weight-loss miracle. And it doesn’t automatically mean you’re eating healthy foods, either. But it doesn’t mean you’re not.

Lots of people like to say that vegans can’t try properly because they can’t get enough protein. The article about vegan diet and health talks about endurance athletes who have forgone animal products with no negative impact (and sometimes, they say, a positive impact) on their athletic performance

The author goes on to say:

“Veganism is an ethical concept more than a health concept,” said Dr. Garth Davis, a weight loss surgeon in Houston, Texas and an expert in plant-based diets. “I don’t use the term ‘vegan’ with my patients. I prefer ‘plant-based.’”

Dr. Davis told me: “I think most vegans did choose it from an ethical standpoint, but it has changed and grown over time to include those who find they perform better at sports on plant-based diets.” He echoed what Lindsey Miller and Scott Jurek said that many choose it for health reasons because it makes you think more carefully about your food intake.

“You don’t have be vegan in order to be healthy, but being vegan is a very healthy way to live,” he said.

Notice the emphasis on the less political/ethical “plant-based.’ Here, the health benefits take centre stage.  Sure, if you focus on whole foods in your plant-based diet, you’ll make healthy choices. That’s probably the reason why so many people slide the two together. But vegan doesn’t mean only whole, low fat foods. I made an amazing vegan spiced pumpkin cake with a chocolate glaze yesterday and I’m glad I took it to an event where I wouldn’t have to contend with leftovers.  Despite containing pumpkin and being vegan, it wasn’t the healthiest thing to come out of my kitchen this weekend.

It should come as no surprise that James Fell, author of  “Are Vegan Diets Healthy?” concludes:

The takeaway here is that, yes, vegan can be a very healthy diet, as long as you do the work to ensure you do vegan well, and avoid the processed vegan “food.” From a health perspective, going vegan can make it so those who struggle with healthy eating are made to take their nutrition more seriously.

Because cutting out fast food burgers in favor of more plants is a good idea.

I’m the last person to discourage anyone from opting for a vegan diet and lifestyle, but the fact is that cutting out fast food burgers in favour of all sorts of other possibilities is probably a good idea.

And it’s worth saying that as with any approach to eating, you need to do a bit of research. One thing I’ve discovered, for example, is that vegans actually do need to make a point of getting their B12 because it is a necessary vitamin and occurs naturally in only a small range of plant foods. Most non-vegans get their B12 from meat products. For a vegan, plant-based “milks” as well as cereals are usually fortified with B12, and you can also get it from B12 supplements.

That’s just one factor. We’re not born knowing what constitutes a well-rounded diet that meets all of our nutritional needs. Whether you opt to eat a vegan diet or not, the simple fact is that whether your version is healthy or unhealthy depends entirely on the specific choices you make.


The new US dietary guidelines, or: just tell me—are eggs good or bad this year?

Every so often, the US government convenes an expert panel to gather the newest research in order to review and revise its dietary guidelines. The newest version, out this week, is here.

News flash: the main message of the report is this:

people should

  • eat more fruits and vegetables
  • eat more whole grains
  • eat a variety of proteins
  • restrict sodium intake
  • restrict sugar intake
  • restrict saturated fat intake

We shouldn’t drink much alcohol, either.

The guidelines don’t say anything about laughing while eating salad alone, but I’m sure that can’t hurt.


With that level of advice, one wonders how much money the US government spent on such shocking news for the eating public. But they did lay out some dough for this lovely graphic below:


So eggs are back in favor. Eggs were in trouble in 2012, when the press reported the results of a study  concluding that eating egg yolks contributes to atherosclerosis (plaque build up in arteries, increasing risk for heart disease) almost as much as smoking. Yes, you read that right. Almost immediately, the study was shown to have many limitations. Basically, researchers interviewed a bunch of patients with heart disease and asked them, “hey have you smoked?” and “hey, have you eaten a bunch of eggs?” Because many of those patients answered, “uh yeah, I think so”, the researchers made this conclusion.

Well, of course it wasn’t exactly like that, but it’s not that far off as a description.

I bring this up because, for me, the eggs-good-eggs-bad-eggs-good nutrition pendulum is emblematic of the problems with nutrition and dietary research. In brief, here are three contributing problems.

  1. Evidence for nutrition research is hard to gather.

There’s a great article out this week from FiveThirtyEight (thanks, Matt, for telling me) that is both informative and amusing (a worthy goal for all of us writers); it talks about the ways nutrition researchers gather evidence for studies. One way (that divides up into some different methods) is to ask people what they ate recently. It turns out that people’s reports aren’t very reliable—they overestimate amounts or frequency of some foods and underestimate others. Another way is to enroll people in lab studies where their food intake is totally controlled and monitored. This is a problem because results based on those studies don’t apply well to eating in the real world.

The fivethirtyeight folks also did their own food research and ran some analysis to find correlations (these people know from statistics) and released this table with lots of specious correlations. The small p-values on the right indicate that they have very strong evidence for those correlations. However, there’s no reason to believe that consuming table salt has a real-life connection to having a positive relationship with one’ internet service provider. In sum, all sorts of relationships can be found, but targeting the important nutritional ones is very difficult, more so given the sorts of evidence we have been able to gather.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 8.40.32 AM

2.  Nutrition policy is politically charged.

As soon as the guidelines came out this week, there was a spate of harsh criticism, charging the various food lobbies (meat in particular) with using their influence to obfuscate or bypass the scientific committee’s results (found in their report here). One consumer website here said this:

Some public health observers see a big win in these guidelines for the meat and soda industries. Harvard’s Walter Willet commented that “there are clear benefits of replacing red meat with almost any other protein sources — but the meat lobby is very powerful in Congress. The Dietary Guidelines Committee was also quite explicit in their recommendation to limit sugar-sweetened beverages, and that’s not talked about in the guidelines at all.”

If you’re looking for even more fiery criticism, look no further than here for a knowledgeable if vitriolic political critique. A couple of highlights: the author David Katz points out how the guidelines talk about emphasizing “nutrient-dense” foods and reducing sugar intake and saturated fat intake, when the scientific report language was much clearer: processed and junk foods and red meat and processed meat intake should be reduced, as well as consumption of sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages. But the food and soda lobbies are powerful and were successful in getting the language of the guidelines to be vague or not helpful to consumers. Read the guidelines for yourself here and see what you think.

3. Nutrition guidelines make all sorts of values claims and value judgments about foods.

In the guidelines, the messaging is that many foods are considered “good” or “bad”, which makes eating seem like a moral act. And that’s weird and bad for us. Tracy has blogged a lot about the destructivenesss of the “good/bad” dichotomy for foods. Here and here are just a few of her posts on this topic. For me, setting up foods as being “good” or “bad” is a quick prelude to setting myself up for being “good” or “bad”, depending on which foods I happened to eat that day. Trying to live a life with meaning, productivity, connection and satisfaction is hard enough for all of us. Why add this other burden of trying to be a “good” eater? Yes, we want to be healthy (whatever that means to each of us), and happy (ditto). There are lots of paths to those goals. Guidelines can be useful, especially when they’re backed by strong science. But moralizing them is beyond the bailiwick of science, and in general a bad business for our well-being. So eat eggs, don’t eat eggs—it’s up to you.


The weak link in intuitive eating, our hunger signals aren’t terribly reliable

imageI wrote the other day about my brand new life experience, missing meals and forgetting to eat. That’s not me. (See Forgetting to eat? Who are these people?)

And it’s really shaken me, got me thinking about the role of hormones in appetite regulation and about the ideas behind intuitive eating.

You know the drill, eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Pay attention to satiety clues and eat mindfully. In terms of the blog, roughly Tracy is a fan but Catherine and I have both expressed doubts. See here and here.

Intuitive eating sounds great for the person who eats when they’re supposed to, because of what the clocks says, or who starves him or herself, for whom hunger has become meaningless.

But aside from the ignoring hunger bit (been there, done that) that’s not me. I’m routinely hungry. Like stomach growling, weak feeling, dizzy hungry. So when people have said, in the past, just eat when you’re hungry, I’ve often been puzzled. “You mean, like always.”

The context for the change is that I’ve had my thyroid removed and I’m taking medication as a result. I’m in the stage where they’re fiddling with various levels. I’m doing fine, receiving excellent health care, and it’s all settling into the new normal for me. But there’s one big change: For the first time in my life, I’m not hungry all the time. Often I’m not hungry at all and I’m having to eat because of external factors, like going for a bike ride.

It’s a bit disconcerting, like when I discovered drugs that took away my fear of flying. All that anxiety, just gone. I thought my anxiety was part of my identity. But it turned out to be pretty fixable. Now I’m no longer the person who wakes up hungry and that feels strange too.

All of this is making me rethink intuitive eating. It’s clear now that our hunger signals aren’t perfect at all. They’re pretty darn flexible. And I guess I knew that. I knew that formerly obese people have much higher levels of the hormones that signal hunger.

Here’s one such study, from Science Daily.

The study involved 50 overweight or obese adults, with a BMI of between 27 and 40, and an average weight of 95kg, who enrolled in a 10-week weight loss program using a very low energy diet. Levels of appetite-regulating hormones were measured at baseline, at the end of the program and one year after initial weight loss.

Results showed that following initial weight loss of about 13 kgs, the levels of hormones that influence hunger changed in a way which would be expected to increase appetite. These changes were sustained for at least one year. Participants regained around 5kgs during the one-year period of study.

Professor Joseph Proietto from the University of Melbourne and Austin Health said the study revealed the important roles that hormones play in regulating body weight, making dietary and behavioral change less likely to work in the long-term.

“Our study has provided clues as to why obese people who have lost weight often relapse. The relapse has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits,” he said.”

Why does it matter? What’s this got to do with intuitive eating?

My worry here is that intuitive eating assumes that our bodies are right about various things, that the signals they send us are correct. But if the formerly obese person eats when hungry, they’ll be eating a lot more often than is consistent with maintaining their weight.

It’s trickier than I thought. And it feels weird to me to be eating because I ought to–I can’t ride my bike if I don’t–and not because I’m hungry. This gives me a chance to be more deliberate about nutrition and I’m liking that aspect of it all.

Still thinking about this? Want more information? Here’s two articles from Precision Nutrition that do a pretty good job of explaining the hormones that regulate hunger: Leptin, ghrelin, and weight loss and  Weight loss & hunger hormones.