body image · diets · fitness

The power of a pound or two

Content warning: talk about weight loss and body image.

About two weeks ago, I wasn’t feeling so great– less peppy and more draggy walking around and going up the two flights of stairs to my office. By the weekend, I was clammy and nauseated, with abdominal pain on my left side. It didn’t get better, and I found myself reluctantly heading to the hospital emergency department on a Sunday morning.

At the end of five hours there (including lots of testing, waiting around, and generally watching the show which is an ER over the weekend), the doctor wasn’t sure what was wrong, but had a concerned urgency in his tone that I must say I didn’t like. He insisted I go to the GI specialist the next morning.

Long story short, I have a mild-ish case of pancreatitis, with no clear cause. There are some very clear risk factors for it, but I don’t have any of those. I happen to fall into the 20% of cases classified as “misc other.”

Great, I’m officially in the junk drawer of medical causes… Sigh.

It turns out that the main treatment for pancreatitis is not eating food for a while. Three doctors explained the technical details like this: “the pancreas needs to rest”. Well, okay then. Let’s be very quiet. Shhhhh…

I was on a liquid diet for 3 days, transitioning to jello, popsicles, and finally– apple sauce! By day 5, I could have chicken noodle soup. Oh joy! One key feature of this diet is severe restriction of fats. Much fat intake would cause me abdominal pain (I discovered this when I accidentally ate some ramen noodles, which apparently are high in fat. How did I not know this?)

As you can imagine, I soon noticed that I had lost a little weight. I don’t weigh myself, but I could feel the difference in the way my clothes fit.

Despite the medical circumstances and the knowledge that this weight drop is temporary (it’s water weight which will come back when I start eating properly again) I felt a small thrill. Oh boy, weight loss! Oh boy, looser clothing!

I also felt a rush of irrational hope: maybe now, maybe this time I’ll really lose that extra weight I’ve been dragging around. Maybe I can keep this going, and who knows how far I can go?

Yes, it’s understandable that I would have these feelings. I have been unhappy with my body off and on (more on than off) for almost as long as I can remember. This is so sad, and I wish it weren’t true. But it is true.

When I was 13, I had mono. I went from 115 lbs to 105 lbs in a few weeks. Of course this wasn’t good for me. But boy did I feel like I’d gotten this huge gift– a slightly lighter body, which to me looked and felt transformed. Of course it wasn’t transformed– it was undernourished and dehydrated. Over the next month I gained the weight back as I regained my health.

This time I’m paying closer attention, and I’m on to these beliefs– that this sickness-induced weight loss is a sign of what I can/should/will do to change my body weight.

These beliefs are a cheat and a con.

These beliefs are not reflecting anything true about my body. They’re reflecting my continued struggle with body image and self-acceptance.

For the next month or more, I will need to adhere to a low-fat diet. It’s possible that I will experience more weight loss. That’s fine– it won’t harm me to weigh less. What does harm me, though, is the weight I give to these small changes in my body– what meanings they have and what power they wield over my feelings of well being and self image.

These messages I send myself are a cheat and a con. Why? Because I know that my weight goes up and my weight goes down. I am still here and I am still me, in my gloriousness of intelligence, disorganization, enthusiasm, friendliness, beauty, procrastination, athleticism, and vulnerability.

Everything changes. Including weight. I don’t want to be held hostage to fluctuations, regardless of whether they cause panic or glee. So I’m sharing it with you all. Thanks for reading.

fitness · nutrition

The newest processed food nutrition studies: more to chew on

This past Tuesday apparently was Ultra-Processed Food Study Release Day; two studies– one big and one small– were released for the consideration of the Internet. Both of them have bad news about the effects of eating ultra-processed foods: they result in weight gain and contribute to earlier death.

First of all, what is “ultra-processed food”? Yoni Freedhoff, in his Weighty Matters blog, offers two definitions: one fancy, one non-fancy. The fancy one is this:

formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes

What does this mean? “think of them as the boxes and jars of ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods.” Okay. Not that we really need these definitions. As US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964 about the definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it”.

Back to the studies. Here’s CNN on the big study:

…the researchers enlisted the help of 44,551 French adults 45 and older for two years. Their average age was 57, and nearly 73% of the participants were women. All provided 24-hour dietary records every six months in addition to completing questionnaires about their health (including body-mass index and other measurements), physical activities and sociodemographics. The researchers calculated each participant’s overall dietary intake and consumption of ultraprocessed foods.

Over the study period, 602 participants died. After adjusting for factors such as smoking, the researchers calculated an associated 14% higher risk of early death for each 10% increase in the proportionof ultraprocessed foods consumed.

This study doesn’t investigate why ultra-processed foods increase mortality risk; maybe it’s the chemicals in the packaging, or other features of the manufacturing processes.

The small study, however, provides some interesting detail for further study. Here are its details, courtesy of Yoni Freedhoff:

[Researchers] admitted 10 male and 10 female weight stable adults as inpatients to the Metabolic Clinical Research Unit at the NIH where they lived for 28 days. They were randomly assigned to either the ultra-processed or unprocessed diet for 2 weeks at which point they crossed over to the other diet for two weeks.

During each diet arm, participants were offered 3 daily meals and they were instructed to eat as much or as little of them as they wanted. Menus were designed to be matched for total calories, energy density, macronutrients, fibre, sugar, and sodium, but differed in the percentage of calories coming from ultra-processed sources.

When consuming ultra-processed food diets people ate on average 508 more calories per day. And not surprisingly given this finding, people gained weight on the ultra-processed diet (1.7lbs in just 2 weeks) and lost weight on the flip side (2.4lbs in just 2 weeks).

He adds, “Wow! That’s huge!” Yes, it is. But you might think, this isn’t surprising. People love junky food, and it’s designed to be addictive. Well, the researchers found that the participants didn’t find the ultra-processed food tastier. They just ate more of it. But why?

Here’s something I hadn’t heard about: the protein leverage hypothesis. The idea is that the participants ate more of the ultra-processed foods because their bodies wanted more protein. The amount of protein they consumed on both diets was about the same (also surprising), but the processed stuff had less protein in it, so they ate more to compensate. Of course they didn’t know this– it just happened. Wow. Here’s Yoni again with more detail:

[The researchers] believe might help to explain up to 50% of the increased caloric intake by way of something called the protein leverage hypothesis which suggests our bodies attempt to maintain a constant protein intake, and so people consuming less protein from ultra-processed foods may be eating more of them to try to maintain some predetermined physiologically-desired/governed protein intake. 

We don’t know if this hypothesis is true, but if it is, that is very very interesting news about human metabolism.

I’m still chewing on this, so more as the story unfolds.

fitness · food

The pressure of cooking

First there was food.

Produce at an open market.
Produce at an open market.

Then, there was food porn.

Soon after came food morality.

Now, there’s emergency cooking advice. Not for the kind of emergency that requires baking soda or a fire extinguisher. No, I’m talking about how cooking advice has taken on a high-stakes life-or-death tone. That is, we are told that if we don’t buy fresh/organic/local/etc and cook it in healthy (to whomever’s doling out the advice) ways, we and our families and friends will suffer the consequences. So for goodness’ sake, don’t ever fry chicken. Why not? Check this out.

Caption reading– Research: eating fried chicken increases your risk of death by 13%.

In a new book, Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, the authors take a look at the advice we are given to grow our own food, buy it from the most local and fresh sources, cook it in specific ways with specific spices, and make sure that we and our families and others eat it the way this complex (and time-consuming and expensive) process intended it to be consumed. Here’s what one reviewer said about it:

[In the book]…the anthropologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott do not deny the value of healthy, home-cooked dinners. Instead, they argue that the way our food gurus talk about dinner is fundamentally disconnected from the daily lives of millions of Americans, especially but not exclusively low-income Americans.

… When Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jamie Oliver preach their influential, well-compensated sermons about how you—yes, you!—can (and should) improve your family members’ lives by buying healthier food and preparing it at home, they implicitly frame the quality of our dinners as something over which we all wield a considerable degree of control.

If you aren’t doing dinner right, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough for your family: not shopping smartly enough, not doing the right prep work, not using the best recipes. In addition to creating a lot of angst and guilt whenever we fall short, this censorious approach shifts our collective attention away from the bigger forces shaping our lives and meals, blocking the way to more realistic solutions located beyond the kitchen.

The authors interviewed 150 women in North Carolina, most of them with low incomes. What did they find? Of course the women wanted to cook healthy meals, using fresh food. But they were constrained by:

  • food budget
  • time
  • family food preferences
  • local food traditions
  • did I mention money?
  • oh, and time– worth repeating

How do we respond to the pressure to cook, come what may?

Often, the way we talk about food makes it sound like fixing our meals will fix everything else: heal our bodies, save the environment, restore our family bonds. The proposed solutions in Pressure Cooker flip this equation on its head: Fix the big stuff—reduce poverty, recognize food as a human right—and families will figure out their own dinners just fine.

This makes sense to me. Taking the pressure off cooking to solve all the world’s problems is a good idea. Even better, taking the pressure off (mostly) women to tackle all the world’s problems by making the perfect meal and force-feeding it to their loved ones and friends is a good plan. We all have much bigger fish to fry.

Readers, do you feel pressured to cook certain foods certain ways? When? What do you do about it? I’d love to hear from you.


Fear of fruit: reasons not to be afraid

Content warning: discussion of diets.

Don’t worry, readers– you didn’t miss a new scary press release on how bananas have all become toxic and death-inducing. Of course food safety is an important issue; the recent romaine lettuce recall has ended, but worries about agricultural methods, water cleanliness and industrial food production are real and prudent.

The fear I’m talking about here is based on nutritional advice published in popular media about how eating fruit might hinder weight loss. In an Shape magazine article titled, “Is fruit still part of a healthy diet”, the author warns dieters not to eat much fruit. Why? It contains two scary components:

What the author leaves until later in the article is the fact that fruit also contains this component:


Oops– wrong screenshot. I didn’t mean this kind of fiber:

A colorful fiber optic cable.

Rather, this kind of fiber:

All kinds of fruits of vegetables and grains, which contain dietary fiber.
All kinds of fruits of vegetables and grains, which contain dietary fiber.

Okay, so is fruit’s threat to our existence saved by its fiber content? Is that why we shouldn’t fear fruit?

All kinds of fruits of vegetables and grains, which contain dietary fiber.
Uh. no.

Fruit is saved from the trash can and compost heap by its following features:

  • Its tastes– sweet, sour, perfumey, tart, etc.– it’s got it all.
  • Its colors– every color of the rainbow (except blue, I think)
  • Its textures– crunchy, soft, velvety, crisp— again, you can get anything
  • Its nutrients– fruit contains all kinds of vitamins and such like, which are good for us
  • Its glorious variety– you can find fruits in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes and tastes and seasons and uses

I’ll end with my fruit suggestion of the day: Mangosteen. If you find yourself in a place where they are ripe and are sold, run (don’t walk) to get one. They have a purple leathery outer covering, and white soft inner sections. They taste a bit grapefruity, and bit perfumey. Astounding.

A mangosteen, opened to reveal white inner sections, ripe for eating.
A mangosteen, opened to reveal white inner sections, ripe for eating.

Hey readers– what’s your favorite fruit? Something exotic? Are you a classic fruit lover of apples? Share your picks with us.

diets · fitness

Why you shouldn’t buy a home DNA kit for weight loss, in 25 words or less

Content warning: mention of dieting, although not in a way that is advocating for it.

At my local CVS the other day, I was strolling in the direction of the cough drop aisle, when my gaze happened to fall on the following item:

A home DNA kit for healthy weight-- hmphf.
A home DNA kit for healthy weight– hmphf.

Okay, I promised you 25 words or less, so here is why you shouldn’t buy one of these:

  1. It’s totally made up.
  2. Science doesn’t know how to do this.
  3. You’re wasting your money.
  4. Spend the $125 on shoes.
  5. Or this porcelain essential-oil diffuser.

For a nice longer article on one person’s experience with trying a DNA kit for exercise and diet advice, check it out here. Spoiler: the advice the person received from the DNA kit more or less amounted to “eat less, move more”.

I’ve got even better and shorter advice in lieu of buying this kit or even reading that article:

Eat. Move. Sleep. Done!

Eat Move Sleep
Eat Move Sleep

There you go. No charge…

aging · beauty · fitness

Women over 50 don’t find Yann Moix extraordinary, either…

Hi FIFI readers– in case you missed it: the latest episode of “international douchebags in the news” features childish and churlish French writer Yann Moix, who was interviewed by the French magazine Marie Claire and shared his dating preferences with us. No, I won’t make you wait– here it is (from a New York Times Op-Ed):

…he isn’t attracted to 50-year-old women…. he prefers to sleep with Asian women in their 20s. “The body of a 25-year old woman is extraordinary,” he explained. “The body of a 50-year-old woman isn’t extraordinary at all.” Falling in love with a 50-year-old would be out of the question: For him, women that age are “invisible.”

Well, the French and American fashion media just can’t let this jerk throw down such a misogynist gauntlet and not pick it up. So what do they do? They fight back by finding 50-year-old movie stars and celebrities to prove this bozo wrong. And who do they enlist but Julia Roberts, who happens to be 51. Here she is:

Actor Julia Roberts on the cover of French magazine Gala, with headline reading "Julia Roberts is 50 years old. So!" At least I think it says that. I took French in college, which was a long time ago.
Actor Julia Roberts on the cover of French magazine Gala, with headline reading “Julia Roberts is 50 years old. So!” At least I think it says that. I took French in college, which was a long time ago.

Yeah! Take that, you bumptious troll. Julia is showing us that women over 50 *are* extraordinary, because she is. I mean, look at her on the November 2018 cover of Harper’s Bazaar– she’s rock climbing, and in a humongous pink tulle cotton-candy confection of a dress. If that’s not extraordinary, I don’t know what is.

The cover of Harper's Bazaar magazine, with Julia Roberts clinging to a rock outcropping in a very big, very pink tulle dress.
The cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, with Julia Roberts clinging to a rock outcropping in a very big, very pink tulle dress. While smiling.

Okay, I’ll be serious now. While it is true that Julia Roberts seems pretty awesome and fun and dreamy-looking on these magazine covers, even she can’t overcome such contemptuous views about women (all of them– it’s not like the 20-somethings are thinking, “Whew! We’re really glad we’re still considered attractive by this vainglorious piss-ant.”).

No, she needs reinforcements. And they are on the case, most notably in the form of French women, who submitted evidence of the extraordinariness of women over 50.

They… submitted evidence to rebut Mr. Moix’s view of older women, including photos of gorgeous middle-aged actresses like Halle Berry. In case a former Bond girl didn’t redeem the whole age class, ordinary women offered themselves up for inspection. One 52-year-old French writer posted a photograph of her admirably toned derrière, and other 50-plus women followed suit — hundreds, according to Mr. Moix. (“I would like 50-year-old women to stop sending me photos of their bottoms and breasts,” he pleaded.)

New York Times

Thanks (or rather, merci beaucoup) to all those French women, who delivered up themselves in their own 50-something glory to show him who’s fabulous.

But I don’t think we’re done yet with Monsieur Meh here. He needs a more substantive response to his “women over 50 aren’t extraordinary” claim. Here are some of my thoughts.

Why do we have to have extraordinary bodies to be worth something? Ordinary bodies are lovely, practical, functional, sustainable, and probably also more economical than extraordinary ones (I can’t even guess how much that huge pink dress costs, not to mention the pain of cosmetic surgery, diets, etc. that some extraordinary-looking people go through).

I think all bodies are extraordinary. And all women’s bodies in particular– we do extraordinary things with them. And they differ gloriously– like wildflowers in a meadow– in various shapes and colors.

You, Yann “messed up” Moix, don’t get a picture of my stupendous ass. No no no– you gotta earn the right to a viewing. And you’re missing out, loser.

Youth is sparkling and chaotic and confusing and uncertain. Life over 50 (speaking for me) has more clarity, sweetness, complexity and community. I don’t look the same. I don’t feel the same. That’s life. One of my aspirations as an over-50 woman is not to be oppressed or made low by attractiveness standards that overlook or ignore me.

Readers, what do you make of this “women over 50 aren’t extraordinary” business? Should we just sail on past it? Take a stand and fight back? Continue spamming this dork with butt shots aplenty? I’d love to hear what you think.

fitness · nutrition

No-fat vs. full-fat dairy: the scientific saga goes on. And on…

We’re all used to watching nutrition pendulum swing back and forth, back and forth. You know what I mean:

Pendulum swinging between "good to eat" and "bad to eat".
Pendulum swinging between “good to eat” and “bad to eat”.

One nutritionist blogger made a big list of advice she’s read, which is subject to change without notice:

  • Don’t eat eggs, they are too high in cholesterol.
  • Really, don’t eat any fat because it is all bad for your heart.
  • Don’t drink caffeine containing beverages.
  • Don’t drink soda or juice, they are full of sugar.
  • Don’t drink diet drinks because they will give you cancer.
  • Drink only water, but be careful because the bottle is harmful and tap water is full of contaminants and the natural spring water is really bottled from the tap at the bottling company.
  • Don’t use salt in cooking and avoid all foods made with salt.
  • Oh yeah, you can use sea salt or Himalayan salt.
  • Don’t eat butter, only eat margarine.
  • Oh yeah, don’t ever eat margarine because it contains trans fat.
  • Oh yeah, don’t eat any fat.
  • Oh yeah, eat as much coconut fat as you want, it’s a good saturated fat.

Last month, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) took on the issue of whole-fat vs. non-fat dairy consumption: which is better for us?

tl:dr version: they don’t know. But they want us to eat low-fat dairy anyway.

It’s not for lack of trying that they don’t know whether high-fat dairy or no-fat dairy promotes or detracts from health, and in what ways. They’ve tried. Oh, they’ve tried a lot. But the results are conflicting.

…some recent studies have suggested that high-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt are at least as healthful as their low-fat or nonfat counterparts, and their authors are questioning the wisdom of advising people to avoid whole milk and products made with it.
“I don’t think there’s enough evidence to recommend low-fat dairy,” said cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. However, Mozaffarian added, “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to recommend whole-fat dairy, either.”

JAMA Dec 5, 2018

Uh, okay. But why isn’t there enough evidence to answer this question?

Part of the problem is dairy’s fault. Well, not really. But dairy products are not all created equal. Some cheeses are fermented, and some yogurts have probiotics, says Frank Hu, nutrition chair at Harvard School of Public Health.

Also, we eat dairy in different ways, Hu says:

For example, Hu said, while US consumers chow down on cheeseburgers and pizza, Europeans are more likely to eat cheese for cheese’s sake, not as a topping for foods that without it are already high in fat or sodium or both.

JAMA again

When researchers try to study the effects of dairy fat intake, they have to deal with the problems of which dairy products may be responsible for which effects, and which populations are affected by these results, as different regions eat different dairy products at differing rates.

Okay, fine. Maybe we need to throw some fancy technology at the problem– how about looking at biomarkers and seeing if there are correlations with risk for heart disease and other potentially related health problems?

They did that, too. No luck.

There are ongoing observational studies, where researchers observe and measure lots of features of participants who are consuming varying amounts of dairy fat in their diets over time. But even when they get results from these studies, they don’t tend to trust them:

[Mario Kratz, nutrition professor, University of Washington] “…people who eat the most full-fat dairy products in observational studies are usually among the ones who gain the least amount of weight.” That seems counterintuitive, but …“it’s very likely that there’s a type of compensation going on.” Low-fat or nonfat dairy isn’t as filling as whole-fat dairy, so people might end up craving unhealthy snacks if they opt for the former, he said. However, he added, “I would never recommend people consume large amounts of butter and cream.”

Still JAMA; I’ll let you know when it changes.

Hey Mario– why wouldn’t you recommend that people eat lots of butter and cream? You just said there’s not evidence that it’s bad for us.

Well, maybe Mario is just following the US Dietary Guidelines on Dairy, which say this:

  • Recommendations are 2 cups (or the equivalent in yogurt or cheese) for children ages 2 to 3 years, 2½ cups for children ages 4 to 8 years, and 3 cups for teens ages 9 to 18 years and for adults.
  • Fat-free and low-fat dairy are advised.

Frank Hu is of the same view. Even though there doesn’t seem to be much firm evidence that high-fat dairy is bad for us (and there’s some evidence that it’s good for us), he says he doesn’t expect nutrition recommendations to change soon. Why? Because “more research is needed to examine health effects of different types of dairy products in diverse populations.”

So, we’re back to they don’t know. But they are still recommending low or no-fat dairy consumption.

You might think: well, better safe than sorry. But the thing is, they don’t know which is safer– no-fat or high-fat dairy. And I would be very sorry to have to eat low or no-fat dairy, as it doesn’t taste like anything to me. But Frank Hu says we shouldn’t stress about it; “Overall dietary pattern is very important, and dairy is only 1 of many food items on our plate.”

Excellent. In that case, I am going to not stress and enjoy these.

Whole milk and cream in glass pitchers, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole milk and cream in glass pitchers, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole milk greek yogurt with a spoon, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole milk greek yogurt with a spoon, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole fat cheeses, on a rustic attractive wood cutting board.
Whole fat cheeses, on a rustic and attractive wood cutting board.

What do you do when you read some new nutritional advice? Do you take it with a grain of salt (provided you don’t eat low-sodium)? Do you shift with the pendulum? Do you ignore them all? I’d love to hear from you.