diets · health · nutrition

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.

 

Weekends with Womack

Food Fighting—when we say no to “good” food and yes to “bad” food

This week I’ve been reading and writing about intuitive eating, and thinking more about the meanings food has for us—the humans. I’ve been blogging a bit about this lately here and here.  What we eat, why we eat what we do, and what food does for us are all really fascinating and complicated questions, with no easy or one-size-fits-all answers. Our families, our cultural, ethnic, racial, regional and national traditions, our cooking know-how, our incomes, our biological variations—all these contribute to what we eat and what it means to us.

Lately I’ve been thinking about food as resistance, food as anti-authoritarian means of control, food as a way of acting out against, well, whatever. This reminds me of a scene from 1953 movie The Wild One, with Marlon Brando. The scene is here and the quote is this:

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whadda you got?

brando

Maybe Brando didn’t have this in mind, but food is a prime way of rebelling against whatever they got.

Catrin Smith has a really interesting article on women prisoners’ attitudes about food in prison. They have two sources of food—the prison cafeteria, which serves institutional, non-tasty but supposedly nutritionally balanced food, and the prison store, which sells cookies, chips, and other snack foods, which are high in sugar, salt, and fat content. In nutritional terms, the cafeteria food is “good” and the store food is “bad”. However, Smith found in her interviews with the women prisoners that

“Prison food is frequently defined as ‘bad’, in that it remains symbolic, irrespective of its actual quality, of disciplinary control. Here, controlling a prisoner’s intake of food can be seen as an important means of exerting power in a context in which a woman is rendered a subject to the regulations of the institution. Women prisoners are relegated to a child-like state – told when and what to eat – and food becomes associated with penal authority and denial.

Not surprisingly, prison food and eating practices, in turn, become a powerful focus of frustration and anger. At the same time, ‘bad’ food, as defined in dominant nutritional discourses and the women’s own accounts, becomes a source of pleasure (hence ‘good’), not least because of its taste but also because of its very power and status as ‘forbidden’.

Attempts to control the diet of women prisoners so that they ‘conform’ to the imperatives of the institution, or even, for that matter, to the demands of ‘good health’, may therefore be resisted or ignored in favour of the release offered by ‘unhealthy’ food and dietary behaviour.”

This phenomenon is pretty common—we see “good” food resistance also in students who reject or throw away cafeteria food, resulting in lots of waste and also loss of nutritional intake. What are they eating instead? A la carte items like fries, burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, for one.

friesFor another, lots of schools get revenue from vending machine purchases of sodas, energy drinks, and all kinds of snack foods.

vendingPolicies vary a lot from school to school about student access to vending machines, but they are a part of student eating in many schools. Also, many high schools have policies allowing students to eat off-campus, at places like this.

mcdsI remember well that feeling (for me, starting in college) of freedom to go where I wanted, select my own meals, and control when I eat and how much. It was for me in some ways a vehicle for rebelling against parental authority. My mother denied my sister and me regular access to sugary cereals, snack cakes, chips, candy, etc. Of course this was for our own good, but when I got to college and went to a friend’s apartment, I remember seeing this in his kitchen cupboard.

debbieNow, I don’t actually LIKE this kind of food (probably because I didn’t develop a taste for it, courtesy of my mom’s oversight—thanks, Mom!). But the IDEA of it seemed transgressive, rebellious, bold.

One of the primary tenets of intuitive eating is that no food is prohibited, even Little Debbie cakes or this new burger, recently unveiled by Hardee’s in the US, which features a beef burger, hot dog and potato chips, all housed in a bun.

burger

I know that for some situations in which I desire some nutritionally “bad” foods, I will want to exercise some external control, follow a rule or nutritional guideline, and not buy or eat those foods. An example of this (for me) would be when I pass by the chips aisle in the grocery store. However, for other situations, I know I will want to go ahead and eat some of the foods I consider to be “bad”. For instance, if I’m at a birthday party, I will always want some cake and ice cream. The difficulty is figuring out how to regulate those processes so to be able to exercise my judgment in accord with my own desires and values and health goals.

Bottom line: it seems to me that I need more strategies than those provided by intuitive eating in order to deal with the issue of when-to-eat-rebelliously and when-not-to-eat-rebelliously.

Readers, do you ever eat “rebelliously”? I’d love to hear any comments you have.

Weekends with Womack

Hidden values in intuitive eating, or can I eat a Big Mac intuitively?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted here with some worries about intuitive eating, which is a key component of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. Here’s another brief installment.

There are a lot of things to love about HAES—it’s body-positive, emphasizing weight and body and self-acceptance. It also promotes physical activity of all sorts, stressing that bodies of all shapes, sizes, and capacities can be physically engaged, active, and fit. And this blog is all about that, as am I.

But their emphasis on intuitive eating gives me pause. In my previous post, I listed the principles of intuitive eating from a book about it that Tracy discussed here .  Here they are again:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

All of these make a lot of sense as a reaction to the feelings of deprivation and anxiety that often result from dieting.   I mean, who wants to be stuck eating only this all the time?

sad

Intuitive eating is supposed to liberate us from the tyranny of all-salad-all-the-time. Of course I love salad as much as the next person, although maybe not as much as all those online happy women alone eating salad. You know, like this woman:

happy

But sometimes I really want a burger and fries. Or cake. Or doughnuts. Or tempura. Or fried dumplings. Or macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I really want foods that I know are not especially healthy for me, are very calorie-dense, are highly processed, and which contain a lot of sugar, salt, fat, simple carbs, or other ingredients that I know play a part in overeating or unhealthy eating FOR ME. Like these:

bad food

And yet at the time I want them. I really want them. I want them now. There’s no ambiguity about this at all. And when I eat them, I feel satisfaction.

Of course, the intuitive eating plan has a response to this feeling of wanting these sorts of foods—you invoke rule 7: cope with your emotions without using food, and also rule 10: honor your health with gentle nutrition.

My problem here, though, is this: my feelings or intuitions about what foods I happen to want at any given time are not always very fine-tuned. Yes, of course, we can often recognize feelings like the rush of momentary desire that results from say, walking at a street fair and smelling fried dough or cotton candy and thinking, “wow, wouldn’t it be great to have something like that?” For me, I try to acknowledge that feeling and keep walking past booths like this one:

fried dough

I do so because I really subscribe to rule 10: honor your health with gentle nutrition. But there are also times like this past week when I was out and about, wanted a late lunch, passed this place in Harvard Square and thought to myself, oh yeah, I’d love a burger and fries. That sounds perfect. And it was– I ordered the People’s Republic of Cambridge burger with cole slaw and Russian dressing. Eating it felt fine and satisfying and yummy.

The problem is, my intuitions about what I want at any given time may lead me to gentle nutrition, but I know for a fact that they also lead me to corn dogs. In order to say no to corn dogs (which, for me, is what I would like to do in general for a bunch of reasons), I have to enlist other faculties:

  • my powers of judgment
  • my knowledge about nutrition
  • my desires to develop and maintain patterns of healthy eating FOR ME
  • my will to override any other momentary desires (or peer pressure, or other emotions triggered by the presence of some food)

Enlisting these faculties means ignoring or overriding messages from my body or my feelings or my intuitions or my desires. Of course we all know this—it’s no news. But it does present me with a problem: in the moment, it can be very hard to distinguish between eating intuitively and eating in a way that runs counter to my desire to honor my body with gentle nutrition. In order to make a judgment call at the time, I have to go outside the intuitive eating paradigm and invoke standard nutritional rules, like the one that says, “give me a break—corn dogs? Really? I don’t think so.”

I’m still thinking and working on these ideas, so I welcome others’ experiences and comments here.

eating · sports nutrition · training

Why I’m Trying PN “Lean Eating” after a Year of Intuitive Eating

fresh-fruits-and-vegetables1On Monday, after long discussions with Sam about her experience with Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating Program, I started my one-year commitment to the program.  If you’re not familiar with it, see Sam’s detailed review here.

I’ve been doing and enjoying Intuitive Eating for a year. When I started the Intuitive Eating approach, I was obsessed with food and weight, weighing myself daily, gaining instead of losing, and generally feeling crappy about myself after years and years of the diet roller coaster.  I didn’t think I could handle one more climb to the top of that hill even if the “wheeeeee!” of going down felt great.

The Intuitive Eating solution was to stop focusing on weight–no more weigh-ins (read about that here).  It felt very nurturing to me, and much more in line with my feminist principles than the obsessive focus on seeing a certain number on the scale.  The central principles of honoring my hunger and respecting my body really altered my attitude and refocused my attention.  Self-awareness increased.

And yet, over the course of that same year, I’ve become more interested in triathlon. I’m training harder to prep for the summer season, with regular swimming workouts, three-times a week running, and on-going resistance training in addition to my yoga practice.  And that’s not even fitting cycling into the equation (it’ll be back in the spring).  And though I have gone on record saying that to me, sports nutrition counseling is like dieting in disguise, I feel as if it’s time for me to make some changes.

One of the principles of Intuitive Eating–the last principle, in fact, because it is so loaded for so many chronic dieters–is “Honor your health with gentle nutrition.”  I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s not as if I’m living on junk food and soda pop or anything like that.  But I do feel as if I’ve not quite mastered nutrition since I became vegan just over three years ago. And while I’ve been focusing on a more intuitive approach to eating, nutrition hasn’t been the main guiding principle in my choices.

And truth be told, I’m ready for a change.  From what Sam has told me about the Lean Eating program and from everything I’ve read, it’s not a diet and it can be compatible with an intuitive eating approach to food. So let’s just say that this year, I’m honoring my health with the re-introduction of gentle nutrition.  Nothing extreme will work for me.

One of the things I like most about the Precision Nutrition approach is the focus on healthy habits.  In week one, we’re not even changing anything about eating. We’re just committing to a schedule of working out and active recovery, and adding one “five-minute action” to our day. It can be anything. Mine is at least five minutes of meditation before I sit down to work each day.

Sam has blogged about habits. Habits work well because they’re things you can do without having to think too much. At first you need to be hyper-conscious, but after a time, they become a part of life.  This kind of approach strikes me as entirely compatible and consistent with Intuitive Eating.

I like the sense of community, support, and camaraderie I’m experiencing already on the PN Lean Eating forums. So far, I’m liking my coach (Janet) a lot too, as well as the mentors in my group, who are helping to orient us newbies.

What am I most worried about? Though we haven’t started yet, I know that tracking progress is an important element of the program.  They want weekly weight. body fat, and body measurements, and I think it’s monthly photos.

After a year of staying away from this kind of tracking, I’m going in with a new attitude: that it’s just information. If I can maintain a neutral attitude to that information, I’ll be happy about that.

Of course, I could skip that part. But I have made a commitment to do the program “as directed” for at least the first three months. If I’m struggling with any aspect of it, I’ll approach the coach, the mentors, or the group through the forums. There are quite a few women (over a hundred) in my group, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find some like-minded people along the way.

I’m also kind of excited this time about learning to eat in a way that supports my activities better, and also, to be perfectly honest, about the prospect of getting leaner and stronger as I go into the home stretch of the fittest by fifty challenge and prep for a summer of triathlons and 10K races.

eating

Luna Bars: “Nutrition” for Women

Apple-and-Peanut-ButterI had no idea until today that Luna Bars are actually specifically marketed to women. The Luna brand is a sub-brand of Clif. Now I don’t know if the packaging has always said “for women” on it, but today when I was shopping I noticed it because they had a sample station where you could try the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut bar and the S’mores bar.

Let me say up front that I have nothing against Luna bars. In fact, both of my samples were delicious, like eating a candy bar really.  But it’s the idea that they are “for women” that got me curious.

I asked the woman who was in charge of the Luna samples.  She said something about iron and vitamin D, and then as she walked away she mumbled something like, “I don’t actually know why they say ‘for women’ on them.”

So when I got home I went to the website. The Luna Bar website is quite an interesting place to go.  It’s got a whole section about nutrition where it tells you that when you get a snack attack at the office you can reach for hummus and veggies or…I’ll give you one guess.  Yes! A Luna Bar.

The nutrition page also has information about how to find your “power curve.” That’s about keeping fueled so you don’t run out of energy before the end of the day. You can find your “happy place” between lunch and dinner with a S’mores Luna Bar. In other words, the Luna Bar (of any flavour) is, according to the website, a great thing to include in “smart snacking.”

Luna’s four key ingredients that make it a “whole nutrition bar for women” (trademark) are calcium, vitamin D, iron, and folic acid.  Adults need all of these, but the blurbs say that women of childbearing age especially need folic acid to fend of neural tube birth defects and that women under 50 need 18g of iron per day, over 50 they need 8g.

Using the White Chocolate Macademia Nut bar as an example, you’ll get 15% of your daily vitamin D, 30% of your daily iron (for women under 50, let’s assume), 35% of your calcium and 100% of your folate.  You’ll also get 7g of fat, 25g of carbs, 11g of sugar, 9g of protein and a total of 190 calories.

That’s not too bad for an occasional snack, I agree.  It’s a bit better than a Kit Kat Bar. A Kit Kat’s 210 calories will give you 11g of fat, 27g of carbs, only 3g of protein, 6% of your daily calcium requirement, and undisclosed amounts (if any) of iron, vitamin D, and folate. And despite how much I love Kit Kats, I actually thought the Luna Bar was tastier.

In the end, I didn’t buy it because (a) the fact that it’s marketed as “whole nutrition women” seemed a bit….I can’t quite find the word I want…”shady” maybe?  (b) I’m already maxed out of storage space with a box of Clif Bars and a box of Protein Builder bars, and I actually don’t eat them all that often (maybe twice a week at most).

In the spirit of many websites these days, Luna’s website goes far beyond the bar itself in a section called Luna Life.  Why?   Because…

You’re not only what you eat. Here we take a look at what feeds your strength. Whether you’re an athlete, an artist, a foodie, or just plain awesome, we hope you’ll find something here just for you.

And they are indeed doing some good things on that page, all by way of encouraging us to incorporate Luna Bars into our lifestyle.  Do I object to that broad kind of marketing? Not necessarily.  In a capitalist economy the bar that can lodge itself into our brain and become associated with our healthy and active lifestyles is the bar that will do the best.

In targeting women, Luna is attempting to do just that — to become associated with a certain type of lifestyle–active, yogic, accepting of who we are, providing us with positive messages such as “love your legs for what they can do, not just how they look” (though someone who can’t walk might not appreciate that message, non-disabled women with body image issues sure can use the pep talk).

And of course Luna supports causes that appeal to many women — breast cancer research, and a charity called “healthy child, healthy world.”

But let’s get back to the Luna Bar and its place in a well-rounded diet.  Whatever they say about “whole nutrition for women,” the fact remains that a Luna Bar is not the best or the worst thing to reach for if you need something between meals.  It’s got a treat-like quality and, I think, is probably as satisfying as a chocolate bar while slightly more nutritious.

The thing is, you’re probably better of still going for the apple slices with peanut butter that they mention, or the hummus, or a handful of almonds and a few raisins.  For me, I need to be cautious of my motives for purchasing things like this. If I like them too much, then they become regular parts of my diet when they only deserve to be occasional.

But now I’m rambling.

LUNA is all about good food and good nutrition, but let’s face it: You’re not ONLY what you eat. Here we take a closer look at what feeds your strength. Whether you’re an athlete, an artist, a foodie or just plain awesome, we hope you’ll find something here for you. – See more at: http://www.lunabar.com/luna-life#sthash.rVadEv5E.dpuf
LUNA is all about good food and good nutrition, but let’s face it: You’re not ONLY what you eat. Here we take a closer look at what feeds your strength. Whether you’re an athlete, an artist, a foodie or just plain awesome, we hope you’ll find something here for you. – See more at: http://www.lunabar.com/luna-life#sthash.rVadEv5E.dpuf
sports nutrition

Vegetable added everything

I’m a big fan of adding veggies to everything, sneaking them in where I can. Here’s some great hints here.

But I just got back from the weekly family grocery run with news to report on the added veggies front.

(So much work, all that moving food off shelves, into carts, into car, back home, into cupboards…sometimes I think I should just ring a bell in the driveway and teenagers could eat the food there. And yes, I feel incredibly privileged that my complaint about feeding teen athletes, not to mention two large dogs, is the work and not the expense.)

But what I noticed today was the ever increasing range of products with added vegetables. Apple sauce with peach and carrots, bread with added spinach, fruit juice with celery and greens. I started to wonder what’s next, cookies with added vegetables.

The Country Harvest bread promises 1 serving of vegetables for 1 slice of bread. I preferred the red kind, with red and orange added veggies, to the green kind, hello spinach, but the kids preferred neither and feed their toast to the dog.

I think they’re holding out for the vegetable Oreos.

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cycling · diets · eating · Guest Post · sports nutrition

It’s all about the fuel! (Guest post)

image

I ride a Rocky Mountain hybrid and my spouse and I enjoy biking every time we can. Our minimum ride (the “quicky”) is a 30 km ride. But we often go for longer rides and have done as much as 110km in a day. We are not as serious about biking as a lot of readers of this blog are but we take it seriously enough. We have some bags for our longer runs and take what we need with us: water, snacks, tools, a spare tube, sunscreen, long sleeved t-shirt, money and a credit card. I am also fully equipped to ride to the office with a wonderful clip-on sturdy bag that can carry my books and binders.

We just came back from a 77 km ride and are both seriously exhausted. Why? What happened?

Yes it is 39 degrees with humidex. We left early to beat the heat but that was tough because at 10 o’clock, it was already pretty hot and the sun was shining in all its glory. But that was not the problem. The problem was: we made a rookie mistake! We did not fuel properly!

It does not matter how hot it is. It does not matter how fit you are. It does not matter what bike you ride. It does not matter how fast or slow you go. It does not matter how old you are. It’s all about the fuel!

We had plenty of water. That was not the issue. But water is not the fuel needed for such rides. Water is some kind of fuel and sufficient for a “quicky” but one needs more than that for a prolonged ride.

First step to our rookie mistake: a light breakfast low on protein. It was hot early and who feels like a hearty breakfast on days like this? I had fruits and 1/3 cup yogourt with sunflower seeds. Eric had raisin bread and fruits with one Ensure (dental surgery aftermath). We both had lots of carbs but very little protein.

Second step to our rookie mistake: we took only water with us. We had 3 litres of water between the two of us. We did not have any energizing drink with salt/sugar and other nutrients (yes, I consider salt a nutrient).

Third step to our rookie mistake: we thought we were going out for only 50 km so we did not bring snacks. We usually carry nuts and dry fruit bars when going for longer than 30 km.

Fourth step to our rookie mistake (which is connected with the previous one): we thought that 50km would take us to lunch time in Fonthill at our favorite fry truck in the area which boasts the best poutine in Southwestern Ontario. The plan was to ride 40 km to the truck, have a poutine, and ride the 10 km left back home.

At about 30 km into the ride we had a choice of turning left or right. Right was taking us back to Fonthill too quick and left was a small detour that would make the ride 50 km, what we were aiming for. The small roads in that area are populated by farms and there are no cornerstores or garages where to buy fuel. We were on our own with our water. A series of other detours (caused by us not wanting to ride on gravel roads because it hurts my wrists too much) made the ride much longer.

At about 50 km, we hit our wall: Muscles burning, slight headache, slight nausea. We were drinking water like mad but still that was not enough. I was hungry and my body was screaming for fuel. At some point I thought: “Man! I am pushing like crazy and yet riding at only 9 km/h on a flat road!!!” You should know that my normal cruising speed is between 22 and 25 km/h. Eric asked: “Are we that out of shape?? Our tires seem to stick to the road!” He even checked the tire pressure! The pressure was fine but we were not.

The problem was we ran out of fuel. Badly. No energy left, whatsoever. Well, a little I guess since we made it back. But at some point, walking my bike up a hill, I did feel like I was going to collapse, right there on the spot. We made it back to Fonthill and the fry truck after riding 56 km. We did not run out of water before getting there. But water was not enough. We were lacking proper fuel. This was remedied partly by purchasing one litre of iced tea (probably not the best but I can’t stomach energy drinks and sports drinks) and more water for the remaining 11km.

And then we did ourselves in… we had our poutine (after all, we deserved it by then, right?). Yummy as ever (did I mention it is the best poutine in Southwestern Ontario?), but poutine is what it is: it feels like a brick in your stomach once you have feasted on it. And that it did. I did have some chicken breast alongside it and Eric had a burger. But this further improper fueling just made everything worst. The last 11 km were long and hard. I normally ride 11 km without even thinking about it. Earlier today, I was thinking about every push on the pedals… and about the brick in my stomach. Improper fueling is what caused all this.

One shower later and trying to recuperate (I think it will take until tomorrow morning) I muse about this experience. Lesson learned: if it is not a “quicky” we got out for, bring proper fueling. Because a planned 40 km can morph into a much longer ride. Nobody needs to hit a wall as we did. All we have to do is plan ahead and care enough for our bodies to feed it what it needs: nutrients that will fuel it with the energy we need to enjoy whatever it is we engage in. Exercise should be fun and will be fun if we fuel properly.

It’s all about the fuel!

Christine is a feminist continental philosopher who lives with spouse and cat in the Niagara Region. Biking and training are favorite activities as is gourmet cooking and reading gore thrillers when she travels to conferences, taking a break from writing her monograph on Nietzsche.

diets · eating · fat · overeating · weight loss

Listen to your body, yes, but with a skeptical ear….

Tracy has written lots about what works for her when it comes to food choices. Listening to her body rather than following a strict diet plan is the main piece of that. (See her post on intuitive eating.) She’s also not interested in seeking the advice of sports nutritionists (see here.) Largely she thinks our bodies know what they need and listening to our bodies is both healthier and less alienating than ‘mediated eating.’ We should eat what we want not what the latest diet plan or diet guru tells us to eat. See her post on fad diets here.

We hear this same idea from others too. According to Amber at Go Kaleo, we should listen to our bodies and let them guide us.

Our bodies are not the enemies. I like that as a slogan. The thing is I’m convinced my body is not my enemy. But I’m also not convinced it’s always my best friend either.

That said, I’m not as angry at my body as eat, drink, and run is. I’m not as amusing either. She explains why she doesn’t listen to her body in these terms:

“Because my body is kind of a little bitch.  Yep, this body is all about guarding its own shortsighted interests.  Go for a run, body?  Noooo…I asked the legs, they’d rather take a rest day! Eat some of that broccoli?  Noooo…taste buds want ice cream instead! Get out of bed and go to work?  Oh…I consulted the epidermis and it says that these warm covers feel just fine, so we’re staying put, KTHXBAI.” 

Go read the rest here. It’s very funny.

Mostly I’m in agreement with the intuitive eating idea, especially the claims that we need to make peace with food and end restrictive dieting.  I think self trust matters for women’s autonomy. Casting aside the advice of experts is liberating.

These experts tend to target women with their advice and treat us as incompetent idiots. They create incompetence and then sell products to fix the problem.

Like the woman centred childbirth movement–if you feel like walking around in labour, walk around– the intuitive eating approach teaches women that we know what’s best for our own health.

Shut out the outside noise–whether the noise is fast food advertising or nutritional advice from experts–slow down and feed your self when you’re hungry, stop before you’re full, and eat foods that appeal to you.

What’s great about trusting your body, especially for women, is its radical potential. And as I’ve said, I think lots about this is right but here I want to raise some doubts about intuitive eating, at least as it applies to my life.

The worries I have been be divided into two categories, the internal and the external.

First, let’s look at the internal issues with intuitive approaches to eating.

Our bodies often want things that aren’t the best for us. That seems obvious to me and there is an easy explanation of why this is so. In evolutionary terms death by starvation was a much more likely bad outcome than the health risk of being overweight, especially prior to childbirth years. We are creatures geared for feast and famine times living in an environment of all feast, all the time. We’re not wrong or mistaken to want to eat whenever food presents itself. Until very recently in human history that desire would have served us very well.

Our bodies also aren’t unitary desiring machines either. There are conflicts between well being for different bits of our bodies. What’s good for our brain may not be so good for our thighs. Our brain’s desire for sugar is fascinating and it’s in clear conflict with what’s best for us overall. See “Why our brains love sugar and why our bodies don’t,” here, in Psychology Today.

It seems to me to be a very romantic view of embodiment to think our bodies know what’s best. I’ve written before about the variety of ways that our bodies undercut our best efforts. See this post about our bodies scheming against our weight loss efforts.

Second, let’s look at the external factors. There is no ‘what I want’ separate from my environment. I crave cupcakes, when I crave cupcakes, because I’m in a cupcake heavy time and place. There are many places and times where I might have lived where I’d never crave cupcakes. Would I have wanted something else? Sure. I don’t crave or eat meat but in much of the world not eating meat wouldn’t be an option and probably I’d come to desire it.

On a smaller scale now this is true about the environment I create for myself. I don’t like potato chips very much and I don’t buy them or bring them into my house. But if they’re there I come perversely to want them. Our desire for food isn’t separate from our environment. And I think this is especially true for food that’s designed, like cigarettes, to be addictive. I’m looking forward to reading Salt, Sugar, Fat reviewed here in the Guardian.

My next post in habits and environmental cues looks at how we might intervene and help ourselves make better choices.

Here’s what intuitive approaches get right. We don’t do as badly as we imagine we’d do if all food is available and nothing is off limits. And I think it’s right that lots of over eating stems from restricting our diets. Certain foods are held up to be both magically bad and desirable. And highly restrictive diets are destructive for just this reason.

But, for me at least, intuitive eating isn’t perfect either. After days without vegetables I come to crave them it’s true. But I doubt that left to my own desires I’d come to want enough green things. I also think that in small amounts we might eat more than we need in some cases and less in others. My own examples come from sports performance, not eating enough when I’m racing and eating too much on days when I do long slow rides. My appetite isn’t a reliable guide to what I need to eat to perform well.

Okay, what can we do? I think small changes in behavior and in our environment can make a difference. What sort of changes? These will be the topic of my next blog post.

Note it may turn out that for you, even small restrictions bring to mind the full on serious restrictions of heavy duty during, the way that tracking and nutrition counseling affected Tracy. If that’s right then I agree it’s best to stick with intuitive eating as a way of recovering from a history of dieting.

But as I’ve said in a few blog posts, it’s part of my goal to get leaner and to improve my nutrition. I’ll be listening to my body too but with a critical ear and strategizing about ways to get it what it wants while still meeting my goals and changing my eating habits.

Further reading:

When listening to your body doesn’t work, Part 1

When listening to your body doesn’t work, Part 2

(Mark’s Daily Apple)

Nia Shanks: Ditch the diet rules, listen to your body for optimal health

The most effective diet: listening to your body

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diets · eating

Intermittent fasting and why it might not work as well for women

You’d have to be living under a rock not have noticed the latest diet trend, intermittent fasting.

It’s gone from making the rounds in the Paleo community (see Intermittent Fasting And The Paleo Diet) to mainstream with the 5-2 diet. See British 5:2 diet craze heads to the US. See also When you eat key to intermittent fasting (CBC).

The basic idea of the 5-2 version is that you “fast” for two days and then eat whatever you want for the remaining five. It’s not strictly speaking an actual fast because you do eat about 500 calories on the “fast” days.

There are many versions of intermittent fasting (or IF as many fans call it) from some that sound just like skipping breakfast, to others that have a more complicated structure throughout the week, to some that are geared to a very specific purpose such as avoiding jet lag.

The evolutionary basis of this approach to eating seems obvious. Humans have evolved to do well in feast and famine conditions. The problem with the contemporary North American diet is that it’s all feast, all the time. Many cultures around the world practice fasting and seem to suffer no ill effects from periods of fasting, followed by periods of feasting.

It’s striking how much IF deviates from the regular feeding, three meals + two snacks, of most other nutritional plans for athletes, including fitness competitors and body builders. On those plans you eat regular small meals, not going more than three hours without food.

But arguably the fasting habit isn’t for athletes. As you might imagine there’s been controversy over this. For the argument against IF for athletes, see here. The argument against relies on the large amount of data we have on the performance of Muslim athletes during Ramadan. Short version: athletic performance suffers. Also athletes need fuel to train. See that argument against here.

And of course, some athletes and coaches think it’s terrific, if done right, read more here if you’re interested.

Regardless most advocates and fans of intermittent fasting don’t have athletes in mind. The 5-2 diet is described as being perfect for the average person, no big changes in what you eat required, except of course on the two fasting days.

Is this just the latest fad diet? You should read what Tracy thinks about fad diets and the meaning of success here.  Does it work? Again, as Tracy says that depends on what you mean by work. She’d likely tell you to try intuitive eating instead. Intermittent fasting is kind of the opposite of intuitive eating. Rather than noticing and hunger and eating when you’re hungry, on a fasting diet you follow the clock, not your stomach. You learn to notice hunger and then ignore it.

There are lots of versions of IF out there.  Anthony Mychall does the Warrior Diet–one meal a day. He writes about it in this blog post, How to Start Intermittent Fasting and Kick Hunger Aside. How to cope with hunger? “The best way to forget about hunger is to literally put yourself in a position to forget about hunger. Keep active during your fasting window and put yourself in a situation where you can’t eat. Hell, sleep in if you have to.”

What about more extreme versions? In Inhuman Experiment: An experimenter in search of prolonged youth we read about another IF propocol. This one requires 24 hours of fasting as it’s based on alternate day feeding, called ADF, of course. See the blog post, Intermittent Fasting: Understanding the Hunger Cycle for more about hunger: “The feelings of hunger during intermittent (24 hour) fasting vary with time. The one thing to keep in mind is that, in my experience, the most difficult part is near the 20th hour into the fast. That’s when the hunger is replaced by a general lack of energy and focus. This feeling will, however, pass in an hour or so, after which fasting becomes much easier again.”

I’ve often thought of intermittent fasting as one tool in the careful eater’s bag of tricks. I do a version of IF I suppose (though I’ve never called it that) when I decide to not eat after dinner, thus lengthening the period in the day when I go without food. I do this on days when I’m not working out in the evening. I go to bed a little bit hungry but since I always wake up hungry no matter what there doesn’t seem to be any other change in my desire for food.

A few years ago on the advice of a personal trainer I experimented with morning workouts on an empty stomach but that was a bit of a disaster. See comments above on waking up hungry! Halfway through my morning run I was prepared to go knock on doors in search of breakfast.

I’ve had more some success with eating lots less when I travel. It’s a good time to experiment since the food options are crappy and expensive. I haven’t tried IF as a way of combating jet lag though I might the next time I head to England or British Columbia.

On jet lag and fasting. read more here:

But one thing seems clear about these various eating schemes, your mileage may vary: what works for some doesn’t work for others. If regular  intermittent fasting is successful for you, great, but there are concerns it doesn’t work as well for everyone and very specific concerns that it doesn’t work as a nutritional strategy for women.

I read Shattering the Myth of Fasting for Women: A Review of Female-Specific Responses to Fasting in the Literature and was shocked that for all I’d heard IF touted as good for people, most of the research supporting IF had been done on men. Surprise, surprise. For the effects of fasting specifically on women you need to read about studies with rats and mice, and the news isn’t good. Women, it seems (well at least female rats and mice) don’t get the same benefits from fasting and they suffer some additional ill effects.

Yet, I’ve had intermittent fasting recommended to me by several young men, heavily involved in fitness and nutrition.  In light of these experiences, I was thrilled to read a terrific rant (she gives the best rant) by Krista Scott Dixon, at Stumptuous.

In “The First Rule of Fast Club” she  rants about and aims fury and righteous rage in the direction of lots of things including the following: why intermittent fasting may not be the cure all for women’s weight woes, why in general what works for young men won’t work for women, and why women shouldn’t listen to young, thin, male personal trainers.

“The first rule of fast club is: Don’t talk about fast club.

The second rule of fast club is that skinny guys no longer get to tell me what to do. (Although I love you guys. You look so cute with your pants falling down!)

I come not to bury young male ectomorphs, but to praise them. In fact, I married one. They are a fascinating species. I have observed my own specimen for years, like Jane Goodall amongst the chimps.

Here are some interesting facts about these wonderful creatures.

1. Many of them can live on fumes. Craving neither food nor drink, these hominid hummingbirds apparently draw nourishment from the air. They sup on dew and dine on dust.

2. When they are stressed out, they don’t eat. Actually, when they aren’t starving, they don’t eat. Which is to say, most of the time. Can you believe not eating when you’re stressed? I know! Ha ha! Crazy! I keep trying to explain to my specimen that giving a loaf of bread a butter enema then dipping the whole thing in chocolate and rubbing it all over your esophagus will always make you feel better. Thus far I have failed to convince him.

3. When they do eat, it doesn’t seem to matter. Have you seen the food these guys can put down? It’s like they encode for some MAKE_ABS1 gene. In their bodies, somehow cookies turn into tummy bumps.

4. To lose weight, they do crazy shit like give up drinking so much beer. I hear women from all over the globe gnashing their teeth at their partners’ superhuman abilities to get riptshizzled with no effort. I’ve been busting my ass and I lost 1 lb in a month! That jerk’s doing my nutrition plan along with me and he’s lost 40 lb in the same time, just by eating one less strand of spaghetti a day! I hate him!

I hear ya. My home dinner table conversation sometimes goes like this.

Me: Ugh, I feel the estrogen demons again. I feel like an inflated wet sponge. The only thing that fits me is the Snuggie my grandma gave me last Christmas.

Him: I don’t feel so good myself. I had a whiff of anxiety today and dropped 5 lbs. Then my shirt tore itself on my abs.

Eeyup.

There there ladies. Cry it out.

And here is point #5, which may be the most obvious:

5. They are not us.”

Go read the whole thing here.

Here’s a very useful resource if you’re thinking about giving intermittent fasting a try: Precision Nutrition, Experiments in Intermittent Fasting.

Have you tried Intermittent Fasting? What do you think? How did it make you feel?

body image · diets · eating · overeating · sports nutrition · weight loss

Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It!

MangoRecently I wrote about my (personal, not for everyone) decisions not to get further sports nutrition counseling and to stop weighing myself.  I committed to re-acquainting myself with two books that helped me a lot back in the early nineties when I was a compulsive dieter and exerciser with a diagnosed eating disorder (that I didn’t believe I had because I wasn’t skinny enough).

The books were Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet-Binge Cycle and Live a Happier, More Satisfying Life by psychotherapists Carol H. Munter and Jane R. Hirschmann and Intuitive Eating, Third Edition:A Revolutionary Program That Works by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.  You can find my review of and experience with Overcoming Overeating here. There I say that while I liked a lot of the principles, Intuitive Eating resonates much more strongly with me.  So today’s post is about this approach and why it’s working for me.

Intuitive Eating (IE) is based on ten principles, to each of which the authors devote a full chapter:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

The authors introduce the concept of IE. They identify a number of different eating “personalities” who have an unhealthy relationship with food–the Careful Eater who is obsessed with nutrition, the Professional Dieter who is perpetually on a diet, and the Unconscious Eater who pairs eating with another activity, such as watching TV or reading, or just generally eats mindlessly because they are too busy, vulnerable to the presence of food (like the cookie jar or the donuts at meetings), or they don’t like to waste food (they’d rather clean their plate and then move on to their children’s or spouse’s plates), or they use food to cope with emotions.

The Intuitive Eater, by contrast, has what the authors consider to be a healthy relationship with food. They “march to their inner hunger signals, and eat whatever they choose without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma.” The authors believe children are born as intuitive eaters, but that social messaging leads many people to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with nutrition, weight loss, and food. The goal of the book is to help people who, in their words, have “hit diet bottom” become Intuitive Eaters.

The first four principles help to change the diet mentality, where food is the enemy and needs to be controlled and restricted to reach the ideal weight.  Principles 5 and 6, feel your fullness and discover the satisfaction factor, nudge us in the direction of a more intuitive relationship to the food we eat. Principle 7 addresses the issue of emotional eating and offers alternative modes of self-care that are more successful.  Principle 8 calls upon us to stop body-bashing, and, as Samantha has recently urged, respect the body we have.

Principles 9 and 10 are introduced last for a reason. The authors think that both exercise and attention to nutrition (The Careful  Eater) can be used as covert ways of implementing The Diet Mentality.  Not only that, many people with a history of dieting and food obsession have negative associations with exercise in particular. They strongly suggest that people work with the first 8 principles to become comfortable Intuitive Eaters and only then pay close attention to exercise and nutrition.

I can’t go into the principles in detail, but I want to say a bit more about my favourites.

Of course, I love the idea of rejecting the diet mentality. I’ve spoken of it here, here, and here.

Feeling your fullness (Principle 5) is the one that challenges me the most and that I have worked with most closely since I started this approach back in early January. The authors claim that “the ability to stop eating because you have had enough to eat biologically hinges critically on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (Principle 3: Make peace with food).

In order to feel your fullness, the authors recommend conscious eating. Instead of moving into autopilot, they suggest paying attention, eating without distraction, pausing part way through a meal to register whether the food still tastes good and whether you’re still hungry. Samantha is doing the same thing with her recent attention to mindful eating. They introduce the idea of comfortable satiety, where you’ve had enough to eat but are not overstuffed.  Respecting your fullness means stopping at comfortable satiety. In order to achieve this, you need to eat engage in mindful or conscious eating.

Their approach to both exercise and nutrition focuses not on weight loss but on how good both make you feel and how they act as methods of self care.  In fact, the authors note that exercise is a great stress buffer.  A good relationship with exercise, when it is a part of your life that you actually enjoy instead of see as an obligation, can go a long way to curbing emotional eating.

The IE approach appeals to me for so many reasons.  I am convinced that diets don’t work for long term weight loss and I despise food tracking and monitoring.  So the idea of learning to identify and respond to my body’s natural hunger signals provides an exciting alternative and a reason for optimism. Since I started focusing on mindful eating and respecting my fullness I have been much more capable of eating when hungry and stopping at the point of comfortable satiety.

I am eating foods I enjoy, engaging in exercise I enjoy, and have no hard rules around the foods I choose.  My tendency is towards nutritious foods anyway. I love salads, legumes, soy, whole grains, and fruit. I have a sweet tooth which I satisfy with a whole range of things, from medjool dates and dried pineapple to my favourite vegan chocolate cake and home-baked coconut cranberry chocolate chip cookies.  I have discovered a few things too, like I prefer mangoes to french fries. I have total permission to eat either, depending what I feel like.

The recommendation to toss the scale, found both here and in Overcoming Overeating, has been the single most positive change for me.  I love not weighing myself and instead tuning in with how I am feeling.

On my recent sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands, I maintained an easy level of activity with snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming with a few push-ups and burpees thrown into the mix, ate when I felt hungry and stopped when I felt satisfied, and drank one totally indulgent virgin cocktail (I don’t drink alcohol) a day.

I am sure that I gained no weight and quite possibly lost some (of course I can’t be sure). What matters most is that I feel really good, like I took care of myself, ate well, and kept moving during my vacation. Though I experienced a bit of self-consciousness in my bikini at the beginning (I adjust more quickly to being totally nude than being in a bikini, as explained here), I respected my body and didn’t engage in body-bashing.  After a day or two I felt good.

A couple of other things about the book.

Since the original edition came out in the early nineties, there have been quite a few studies on the approach to gauge its success as a health strategy. The authors have included a chapter about the science behind the IE approach. The chapter adds scientific validity to the author’s suggestions and makes a strong case that Intuitive Eaters experience both mental and physical health. Moreover, they cite studies that show it as a viable solution for the prevention of eating disorders and obesity.

It includes chapters on raising children to be intuitive eaters, and on using the IE approach to treat eating disorders. It also has a Q and A appendix to answer common questions about Intuitive Eating, such as “If I let myself eat whatever I want, won’t I eat uncontrollably and gain lots of weight?” The authors do not believe this will be the case because “when you have made complete peace with food and know that what you like will always be available to you, you’ll be able to stop after a moderate amount. If you’re only giving yourself pseudo-permission, it won’t work, because you don’t really believe you’ll always have access to food. So check out how genuine your permission-giving is.”

Finally, the book has a really helpful appendix that outlines strategies for implementing each of the principles.

I’m a total convert to this approach to eating.  I don’t think about food all the time and don’t spend a lot of time planning my meals and snacks. I just make sure there I’ve always got lots of good food that I like on hand for when I am hungry. I do pay attention to nutrition though I am not a slave to it, and I am as active as I want to be, minimally doing at least one weight training or yoga session a day and one “cardio” activity a day.

I never track and I no longer weigh myself.

If you are ready to do something different and truly willing to commit to never dieting again, I highly recommend that you read this book.