For #tbt posts I like to go back to the same month in a previous year. Today we go back six years, to February 28, 2013, when I posted about metabolic health. Reading posts from the early days helps me to see how far I’ve come since we started the blog over six years ago. In this post, I finally “got it” about why it’s important to eat enough.
Over the last few years, my thinking and practice has shifted completely. Rarely do I worry about “eating too much,” unless in the sense of eating to physical discomfort, which simply doesn’t feel good. I think my metabolism has recovered from any damage I did in my decades of chronic dieting with the weight loss-gain roller coaster that comes along with it. Besides the idea of Intuitive Eating, this concept of Metabolic Health really helped me get to where I am today. If that’s of interest to you, read on….
[Note: I am by no means an expert on metabolic health. I hardly know anything about it. I just know it’s an idea with major liberatory potential. For more information about it, check out some of the links below]
I think really that most of us aspire to eat intuitively, to have an uncomplicated relationship with food. You know the basic ideas, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, no foods are off limits, listen to your body, and follow “gentle” nutrition. I admit it sounds heavenly. Me too. Me too. And I think it’s terrific for people who have a broken relationship with their body’s signals , people who eat what a diet says, when it says, ignoring all the cues our bodies give us. Getting in touch with hunger–which many of us have the privilege to not experience very often–can be super useful.
But I have so many worries about intuitive eating as a social phenomenon.
So I am going to try to sort out my concerns in a numbered list, like philosophers are in the habit of doing.
First, I worry that it’s often a disguised diet where “working” as in “does intuitive eating work for you?” is measured, in part, in terms of your weight. If there were more fat people, at stable weights, not obsessed with diets or food, held up as intuitive eating success stories, I’d be happier.
Second, I worry that it’s connected to another way of judging fat people. You’re supposed to only eat because you’re hungry. Intuitive eating, done right, is supposed to land you at the right weight for your size (see above). Therefore, larger people must be eating for reasons besides hunger. You’re supposed to be vigilant about emotional eating. So often there’s judgments about mental and emotional health of fat people, as if we can read your emotional well-being off the number on the scale. It assumes that if you take care of your mental and emotional health your weight will fix itself. And that you can tell that people–and here pretty much we mean women–are emotionally unstable, because they’re fat. Just no.
I’ve written in defense of food as comfort and emotional eating here.
There are many amazing photos of food on Unsplash. This is a tray of cinnamon buns. Photo by Otto Norin on Unsplash.
Okay, but these two worries are about intuitive eating as a thing, as a social phenomenon, about the way we think about it and talk about it. We could stop all that. We could hold up some fat people as successful intuitive eaters. We could stop assuming that fat people aren’t eating for hunger. We could do it right.
Third, I have worries about the actual practice of intuitive eating. I worry that hunger is not exactly the most reliable bodily signal in town. My own experiences in this area are pretty wild and they have to do with thyroid levels. I’ve had thyroid cancer and as a result take a synthetic version of thyroid hormones called synthroid. There’s a lot of juggling in getting your thyroid levels right. Lots of things can throw it off and the thing I notice is the most is how this affects hunger. I can go from raging hunger all day, like waking up during the night hungry, to not caring at all about food. It’s really striking.
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. 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. It’s pretty complicated.
If your hunger cues are reliable, great. If you’re not a formerly obese person or someone who struggles getting their thyroid levels right, enjoy! But recognize that as a privilege and don’t assume that it will work for others.
Fourth, I worry about intuitive eating in an environment where some foods are designed to make us want them. Sugar + fat? Yum! Read here for how junk food is designed to both create cravings and convince your body that you’re not full and can keep eating more. From the article just cited, “Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories. The result: you tend to overeat.”
We’re not all alike and if intuitive eating works for you, then great. But what do I mean by work? I don’t mean weight, that’s for sure. I mean if you eat this way are you, on reflection, happy with the food choices you’re making? Are you leading a life you enjoy? Are you meeting your own food goals around nutrition? Do you have energy to do the things you love? When I say it doesn’t work for me, I mean that sometimes I am hungry all of the time. I can be hungry 20 minutes after finishing a meal. Hungry again before bed. Hungry during the night. When I am like that I have to ignore hunger because I know I have eaten enough. At other times I am hardly hungry at all and I can skip meals without noticing. Then I have to make sure I still eat to fuel some of the activities I like, like riding my bike. So as long as this hunger fluctuation is part of my life there’s no strictly intuitive eating for me.
How about you? How well do your hunger cues track the need to eat? Do you listen to your body about what to eat? Are you happy with the choices you make?
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.
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?
This week I was on my much-heralded southwest family vacation with my sister and her three kids (11, 13, 16). I posted last week about my plans for compromising about activity levels. I was interested in hiking but know that my sister and family are not very outdoorsy, so I came up with a variety of plans for novice- friendly walks and swims. I also scoped out restaurants with healthy-to-me but varied options for us.
What was that saying about the best laid schemes of mice and men? I forget. Suffice it to say, things did not go according to plan. However, I learned an incredibly important lesson about eating and self-care.
Mindful eating can happen anywhere.
Even on a family vacation.
Even at a humongous Las Vegas buffet.
In case you’re not familiar with this Las Vegas institution, here’s what it looks like.
These buffets feature acres of largely calorie-dense foods, and are jam-packed with comforting and filling treats from a variety of cuisines. Variety is the key: from Chinese BBQ pork buns to fried chicken and waffles to spinach ravioli to prime rib, you have to experience it to believe it.
Honestly, I approached the buffet with dread. It was not my idea. My nephews had been talking about going to a buffet for weeks and were really looking forward to it, so there was no way out of it for me. And I was worried about how I would feel about it. For weeks, I’ve been focusing on healthy-to-me foods, meditation, slower and undistracted eating, one bite at a time. That’s clearly not happening here. But once we got there, I looked around me, noticing what was going on.
My sister’s kids were in hog heaven (forgive the term), joyously trying dish after dish and eagerly reporting on them. They loved the independence of selecting their own favorite foods, sometimes stretching the boundaries of their tastes, but always with the security of their favorites close by. My sister indulged her pan-Asian food interests with dumplings, pho, and spicy seafood.
As I watched them, I saw that they were fully engaged in uninhibited eating. They were tasting, gobbling, dipping, slurping, and chomping, loving every minute of it.
If that’s not mindful and engaged eating, then I don’t know what is.
I looked around to see what foods struck me. I went for a lamb chop, shrimp, braised short ribs, and exotic greens. And also some pho and dumplings. I tried to be aware of my levels of fullness and accept that over fullness was likely to happen, which it did. But, as feelings are wont to do, it passed.
One feeling that didn’t occur, though, was shame. I didn’t castigate myself for not limiting myself to broiled salmon and salad. I let myself wander amidst the vast array of foods, select what happened to appeal to me, and eat it with appreciation of the (admittedly odd) experience and context of being in the presence of bordering-on-grotesque abundance of food.
Mindful eating doesn’t equal ” healthy” eating. It’s different. I found it useful to focus on my feelings about the food I was eating, no matter what it was. It was interesting to work on practicing self observation without judgment, compassion for myself, and compassion and respect for others.
Radical acceptance is not easy, but a good thing. Still, I do maintain that Nutella crepes are too dangerous a substance to be sold without a special permit.
I was pretty pumped on Tuesday this week when my doctor turned to me and said my blood pressure was great and I should stop taking meds altogether. If you missed all the excitement you can read about my initial high blood pressure diagnosis and my follow-up ponderings only four short months ago.
So how does one go from 156/118 to this sweet, sweet moment?
I’d love to tell you it was a radical shift in my eating or a renewed sense of focus on working out. It wasn’t those things, although I’m sure it has helped. It was me feeling actually quite unwell and I had given up hope. On some level I was pretty sure I was going to die of a heart attack or stroke and part of me was ok with having that happen.
So, pure, unadultered terror is what finally got me to confront my overeating. I don’t recommend this approach, it is, as the cool kids say, like way no fun. My beloved was scared, we fought for about 2 months about seemingly everything. We purged the house of alcohol because I knew if I stumbled on the overeating the next choice on the list of external self soothing was booze. I constantly questioned my ability to be able to address this longstanding problem.
If I think carefully I can remember disordered eating as young as 10 years old, hiding food, eating until I could burst and always needing more. I’m 39, that’s a long time of behaving one way so this newfound sense of clarity about how I have used food to cope is a bit strange. My therapist pointed out that by choosing to volunteer at the Kincardine Race I was perhaps, for the first time, honestly participating. I wasn’t pretending I could do it all, that I was fat and fit. For some folks that may be the case but my body was telling me I needed to change, my blood pressure was off and I wasn’t feeling well.
My first goal was to simply be mindful when eating and that has had a tremendous impact. This one choice lead to a 18 pound weight loss over 4 months, just a little more than 6% change in mass, as I try to come to terms with the underlying causes of my overeating. My physician tells me this has taken the pressure off my system. I will stay mindful and see where I level off weight and blood pressure wise.
Feminism has served me well for many years and it continues to help me frame my experiences in meaningful ways. It’s not lost on me that part of my overeating is to keep straight, cys-gendered men away from me. There isn’t a single year I can think of where I wasn’t at least once sexually harassed by men since I hit puberty, not one year free of this in 30 years. While I know, intellectually, I do nothing to warrant this my emotions turn this inward in awful ways and I have deep shame around my body and my sexuality.
So I keep going to my therapist, as she guides me through this journey to know myself, my most undiscovered country, because I am worth knowing and I want to live. I really do and that is kind of amazing, to have rediscovered hope, to be empowered to end the war with myself.
A new thought repeats itself when as I gain insight “when the sleeper awakens”. I remember H.G. Well’s character awakens to the horror and the awesomeness around him. His quest to cure insomnia causes him to drug himself asleep for 203 years. I have missed out on fully appreciating what is great in my life by not addressing what isn’t working for me, I was asleep and now I am awakening to what others have always told me, I’m smart, capable and worth the effort of changing.
Good thing I have another 60 years or so to go because it feels like I’m ready for a great leap forward.
Natalie is a quirky woman who is learning to revel in her eccentricities and celebrating the uniqueness in others. She does some caregiving to her teenage minions, some paid work and tries to remember what a gift her beloved of 19 years is even if he is a lean, fast responder type with a high baseline. She’s trying to be a better cyclist and insists that the contact between her saddle and her bits is consensual. She may have to invest in something other than her 1960s bike but she is awful stingy.
Life has been a whirlwind since I was diagnosed with high blood pressure back in April and I griped about my feelings here and got some great resources from readers/friends/family.
I am learning to reign in my charming, yet not so good for my health, A Type personality and to be mindful of tension in my body. The good news, I’m making headway, so much so that after 6 weeks of blood pressure medication my doctor halved the prescription as I had lost 14 lbs and my blood pressure was too low at 107/72. This is good news. It means my arteries have not yet hardened, that my blood pressure responds to medication/weight loss and that I can prevent further damage to my circulatory system.
I’ve been seeing my psychologist and doing some grueling trauma work has helped me self-regulate and reduce my overeating without it feeling like an imposition or taking much effort at all. The biggest change for me since my post in April is that I am now confident I can make the changes I need to be healthier and keep my blood pressure where it needs to be for me to have the long life I want.
It’s all on the table, from eating my weeds in dandelion salad (they are called piss-en-lit in French because of their diuretic properties) to turning off the big overhead light at work to using biodots. Have you ever heard of biodots?
I once attended this really great time management seminar about 7 years ago with Harold Taylor and one strategy for time management was to live a long, healthy life and address stress. He offered us this tool, a tiny black sticker:
It works like the mood rings of old, the colour changes based on your skin temperature. When you are tense blood leaves your extremities so the dot goes brown to black. At home the dot is usually a deep blue, I’m so chill in my garden or with my family, at work brown and black rule my day. I’m mindful to relax and take a deep breath and the dot changes colour. Part of the success in the biodots in helping me is that it is a mnemonic for mindfulness. I put it on and it reminds me to check what’s going on with my body and thoughts. I feel more in control when I have good information about what’s going on and I’ve been able to have a scale in the house without going all obsessive about weighing myself.
The one downside is that with all this rapidly changing blood pressure I’ve been too light headed to work out. I have to let go of racing in the Kincardine Triathlon this July with Sam and Tracy. I’m going with a friend and will cheer all of them on though, and that should be good fun. 🙂
So if i trust my body, but not 100%, what can I do to steer me, in a non restrictive way, to better food choices?
I’m interested in hacks, that is, in quick and unexpected fixes for hard problems.
Mostly what I’m interested in are changes in environment that influence choice. Cass Sunstein in his book Nudge outlines a variety of ways in which structuring choice situations differently leads people to better choices (as judged by their own lights) without making rules that govern behavior. You can read about Sunstein’s libertarian paternalism here.
Here is a great example from that book, one which actually concerns nutritional choices. The study concerned people selecting food from a self serve cafeteria. The intervention was intended to get people to choose more fruits and vegetables without coercive measures. All that researchers did was change the order of the food being selected. Putting fruits and vegetables first meant that people chose them and left less room on their plates and trays for processed alternatives.
What changes in our lives can we make that are ‘nudge’ like? I’m not talking about restrictions. Calorie restricted diets don’t interest me and I’m not convinced they work. Instead, I’m interested in environmental approaches that change the choice scenario.
We were chatting about environmental changes lots at the implicit bias conference I was attending on the weekend. One slogan, used by a social psychologist, caught my ear: automate, don’t ruminate. Make good choices easy and automatic. Setting yourself up to think too much is more likely to lead to failure.
We know this of course from the literature on habit. I’ve written here about how good habits are key to change. So it’s not about harsh rules and struggles, deep thought and massive amounts of will power.
But what sorts of changes might we made regarding nutritional choices?
Precision Nutrition has a number of habits they encourage people to establish. Eating when hungry, eating slowly, eating to 80% full, eating protein, vegetables and healthy fats with every meal, choosing better carbs.
Like the cafeteria example, we might think in terms of eating veggies first. Some people recommend eating vegetable soup before each meal. That sounds tedious to me but I do eat raw chopped veggies before dinner on most days. I don’t eat standing up or while doing something else. Vegetables are an exception to that general rule.
I also try not to bring food into the house I don’t want to eat. John Berardi at PN urges people to clean house and get rid of food that they don’t want to eat. He jokingly says that if you bring food into your house odds are that sooner or later you or someone you love will eat it.
I agree with Tracy that there are no ‘evil’ foods but there are annoying foods that I inevitably eat more of than I would like. It’s not that they’re a great treat. I’m a big fan of delicious treats. These are foods I’d rather not eat but can’t resist if they’re there.
Tracy is skeptical about claims that we’re addicted to certain foods and I agree but at the same time there are foods that seem engineered to get me to eat more than I want.
There’s also a number of tools to help you eat more slowly. The the hapi fork isn’t for me but some people also have success slowing down by eating with their non dominant hand. Others use chopsticks, if that’s not familiar cutlery.
Why eat more slowly? It’s tied to the 80% idea. It takes awhile for our bodies to recognize how much we’ve eaten
Others like to eat using small plates and small forks. The small plates encourage us to take smaller servings and to feel like we’re eating more. The smaller forks just slow you down.
My family jokes about the American cutlery we bought. The spoons are enormous. No one wants to eat using the tablespoons and the teaspoons are just about the right size for cereal, etc.
Dish colours also make a difference in how much you eat. Aiming to eat less? Worst are dishes the same colour as the food you’re eating. Better are plates a different colour than your food. Best of all are blue plates, possibly because no food is that colour.
Read about blue plates here. I own blue plates but I didn’t buy them for that reason.
The only restrictive rule I’m trying to adopt is limiting dessert to twice a week. I’ll let you know how it goes…
Do you have any nutritional hacks or tips that you like? Please share.