New Food Labels – Why?

Health Canada recently announced that manufacturers will need to put front-of label warnings on packaged foods that meet or exceed a certain percentage of daily maximum recommended amounts of salt fat or sodium. Manufacturers have until January 2026 to begin labelling, but we could see the changes sooner.

Various products with examples of how the new labels will look.


The percentages vary depending on the kind of food. The labels don’t tell you how high any of the ingredients are. Is it over 15% for general packaged food? 10% for things like cookies, pickles and breakfast cereals? Or 30% for things like frozen lasagne or pizza?

Nicole and I had different responses to the news. My mind went immediately to questioning why a new label is needed, and whether people would, or could change behaviour.

Isn’t the information on the back label sufficient? It is certainly more comprehensive. A 2019 meta-analysis of 60 food label intervention studies shows that simple labels seem to be more effective, so maybe that’s why the new labels; however, the evidence wasn’t super strong.

The study also noted that many barriers exist to consumers responses to labeling, such as limited awareness, attention, understanding, attitude, acceptance, usage, or other challenges such as price, taste, and culture. That’s a fancy way of saying there are societal/structural issues including a lack of nutritional education at home/school, food deserts, and the need for high calorie options when on limited budgets (Boost is my go-to for people living on the streets).

The study did indicate that food labeling effectively reduces consumer intakes of total energy and total fat while increasing intake of vegetables (but not by very much, and there was little study on long-term behavioural changes). It had little or no effect on behaviour around did not significantly alter intakes of carbohydrate, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, or energy consumed.

However, food labeling influences industry responses related to product contents of sodium and artificial trans fat. I’ll take that small win. Sodium and trans fats are the two things I care about most when I look at labels. More studies are needed to assess the effects of labeling on other dietary targets, disease risk factors, and clinical endpoints.

Bottom line for me, though, is that I look at only some of the things on a label when comparing products when I intend to buy. Nothing on the label will make me choose not to purchase it (I do have the privilege of cooking many things from scratch), If I have decided I want chips, I won’t look at the label at all. It’s the same with calorie info on a restaurant menu: I may choose a salad with my burger instead of fries occasionally, but that’s as far as it goes.

Nicole’s says her response was based more on emotion, but I think it is also super valid:

My main concern is this: As someone who has monitored what I eat since about 11, even though I feel I do it in a better way these days, if someone like me goes to have a bag of sour kids, by the time I have that bag in my hands I gave weighed all the pros and cons, I know it’s a bag of sugar and I don’t need to be reminded or made to feel guilty about buying it.

Also, in my disordered eating days, when I would binge, those labels wouldn’t have prevented that binge. It would have just added to my feelings of self-hatred, which I actually think was part of my intention with the binging.

Bottom line? The labels don’t seem to be helpful for consumers, and in some cases may be harmful. They do have more of an effect on manufacturers, who feel pressure to reformulate their products to reduce the negative perception of their products when information about salt, sugars and fats (especially trans fats) is out there for all to see.

Maybe there is a better way to get manufacturers to change behaviour? And maybe there is a way to improve education about, and access to, better food options? I can dream…

fitness · weight loss

When it comes to weight loss, aim to be an alpaca not a unicorn

There are lots of alpacas…

There are lots of alpacas. Here’s a herd. Or is it a flock? They’re in Peru. Photo from Unsplash.

But unicorns are rare. (Not the kind of unicorn that Rachel Lark sings about at 18:40 on the Bawdy Storytelling show.) The kind of unicorns I’m talking about are weight loss unicorns. Weight loss unicorns are those rare, mythical people who lose weight and keep it off for an extended period of time.

Alpacas are more common. Alpacas are people who lose a small or moderate amount of weight and manage to sustain that weight loss.

Some alpacas also have wild haircuts

When we get into the debate about whether or not diets ever work and whether long term weight loss is even possible, part of what’s at issue is which standard we use. It turns out that almost no one loses a very large percent of their body weight and keeps it off forever. But quite a few people do lose some weight and keep it off.

Here’s Yoni Freedhoff writing about a study of people who lose weight, “It’s quite heartening to see that after 8 years, for 35% of the DSE control group, 3 1-hour group talks a year were sufficient to help fuel a sustained weight loss of 5 percent or more of their presenting weight, and for 17% of them, enough to fuel and sustain a greater than 10 percent loss. ”

In my older post about this stuff I wrote, “There are at least two different ways to measure long term weight loss success. We can focus on those who maintain a goal weight or on those who maintain a weight loss of just five or ten percent of their starting weight. By that more easygoing measure, I’m in, I’m a success story. Lots more people are in even if we don’t typically think of only losing 5-10 percent of your body weight, a weight loss success story. Call the people who meet standard 1, getting to goal and staying there, the unicorns. They are rare. Far more common are people who meet standard 2, exotic but not unfamiliar. Call them the weight loss alpacas. ”

Rethinking success is part of Freedhoff’s pitch too. He writes, “What I’m getting at is that I think what makes maintaining weight loss seem “almost impossible” are the goal posts society has generally set to measure success. No doubt, if the goal set is losing every last ounce of weight that some stupid chart says you’re supposed to lose then the descriptor “almost impossible” may well be fair. On the other hand, if the goal is to cultivate the healthiest life that you can honestly enjoy, subtotal losses, often with significant concomitant health improvements, are definitely within your reach. ”

I know it’s less sexy. Change the way you eat for the rest of your life, exercise regularly, and you can maintain a weight that by society’s standards still counts as fat! I can’t see that up on a poster somehow. And yet….it’s better news than many of us are led to think by the blanket talk of “weight loss is impossible”and “diets don’t work.”

So should we aim to be be an alpacas instead of unicorns?

Well, you’re more likely to succeed.

Gina Kolta writes in the New York Times, “Anecdotal reports by people who have succeeded in keeping weight off tend to have a common theme: constant vigilance, keeping close track of weight, controlling what food is eaten and how much (often by weighing and measuring food), exercising often, putting up with hunger and resisting cravings to the best of their ability. Those who maintain a modest weight loss often report less of a struggle than those trying to keep off large amounts of weight.”

There are also health benefits. See More in praise of moderate weight loss.

And me, I’m coming to understand this debate between those who think diets work and those who don’t as being partly about different things.

diets · eating · fitness · Throwback Thursday · weight loss

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

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

weight loss

Should university gyms have scales in them? Sam thinks not…

Image description: Clear snowflake against a blue background.
Image description: Clear snowflake against a blue background.

Carleton University is in the news these days for removing scales from the university’s fitness centre change rooms. Conservatives just hate this. Cue rhetoric about the snowflake generation and safe spaces. Brietbart even jumped in but I’m not linking there.

See Conservative news outlets slam Carleton University gym for removing scales.

And Carleton University comes under heavy criticism after gym scale removed.

Why did they get rid of the scale?

Gym officials made the decision to keep up with “current fitness trends,” Bruce Marshall, health and wellness manager at Carlton Athletics told the school newspaper The Charlatan.

“We don’t believe being fixated on weight has any positive effect on your health and well-being,” Marshall told the school’s newspaper.

“It takes weeks, even months to make a permanent change in your weight. So why obsess about it?

It reminded me of my big success getting rid of the scale at the London YMCA downtown branch. Now the scale I successfully had removed was in the family changeroom. It was being used by children. I wrote a letter to the Y after I watched little girls in my daughter’s swim lesson (approx age, 8-10) weighing themselves before and after class. They were standing around complaining about the numbers on the scale. “80 lbs! I’m so fat.” I wrote to the Y and said that given that they run healthy body image workshops and eating disorders support groups that having a weigh scale for children was inconsistent with their values. They agreed and wrote me a nice thank you note.

But of course university students aren’t children. They’re adults. You don’t have to use it, said lots of readers on our Facebook page when I shared news of Carleton’s decision there. I agree.

Some students think of the decision to get rid of the scale as pandering to those with eating disorders. Aaron Bens, a communication and media studies student at Carleton, wrote to CBC that he is “frustrated” by the university’s decision, which he argues is “the next escalation of trigger culture.” Others argue that the scale is necessary for boxers and rowers and others in weight competitive sports. Note though that varsity athletes rarely use the general student gym and fitness centres. Rowers, for example, have their own training rooms with a scale.

I hear the argument that students are adults and decide for themselves whether to step on the scale.

And yet.

I don’t like scales in change rooms at gyms. Here’s my two reasons why not:

  1. They perpetuate the idea of a connection between exercise and weight loss. There isn’t.
  2. Some people with a history of eating disorders may find it hard to resist the allure of the scale.  It’s why those of us who don’t weight ourselves talk about putting the scale away. It’s hard to walk by. I confess I step on the one at the university gym I go to occasionally. Why? Why?

Image description: Purple scale with a sticky note that says, "You'll never be pleased with the number I show you."
Image description: Purple scale with a sticky note that says, “You’ll never be pleased with the number I show you.”

What do you think about scales in lock rooms at university gyms? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Why/why not?

body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you?

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s 16 contestants have regained much if not all of the weight they lost so arduously. Some are even heavier now.”

The study has been revealing, not because it told us what we already knew–that it’s hard to keep off lost weight–but because the researchers discovered just how hard the body fights to regain lost weight. The key: resting metabolism. We all know that the metabolism slows when we diet. But here’s the thing:

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.

Mr. Cahill was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.

The sad truth for the vast majority of people who try to lose weight and keep it off is this: “despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.”

All of the contestants in the study burn hundreds fewer calories per day than expected for a man or woman their size.  The upshot seems to be that extreme dieting and weight loss permanently slows the metabolism.

There’s a lot more to the article reporting on this research, and you can read it here. But what I really want to consider now is how we are supposed to react to this news. I venture to say, from a quick look at the first few of the over 2600 comments (I know, I know), that people will look for an explanation that makes this group of people different.

The most frequent thing that was pointed out in the first few comments I read is that they lost the weight really quickly.  What about following the progress of people in, say, Weight Watchers? That’s a slower loss. Do they keep it off?  Actually, the answer is: no. Not really. Not many. Any WW promotional materials that include “success stories” will say “results not typical.”

So the first reaction people have is denial.  This can’t be representative. It’s hard to know why anyone who has tried to lose weight and keep it off would think this isn’t representative since, chances are, if that’s you, you gained it back too! Really, these findings should come as reassurance that we’re not all a bunch of weak-willed moral failures.

But instead, people find them threatening because they may show something that’s really hard to accept: that for most people, it just cannot be done. You can lose the weight, but your body will do its damnedest to regain what was lost.

Why should we recoil from this likelihood?  Because it’s really hard to imagine a world in which size doesn’t matter.

One of the comments I read said, “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” But the groundswell of support for the idea that the Biggest Loser contestants just “did it wrong” suggests that fat-shaming is alive and well.

People with normative bodies–the right size, shape, colour–gain all sorts of social and economic benefits and privileges. They’re more likely to get jobs, high grades, good performance evaluations. They have a better chance of finding partners, earning more money, having friends, being acceptable to strangers. Their chances of suffering abuse and discrimination because of their size are lower; their chances of finding clothing that fits, of fitting into the seat on their next flight, and of being able to eat what they like without being judged are much higher.

In other words, being perceived as obese by others has enormous social and economic costs.  Our obsession with size is so far reaching and ranges over so many areas of life, that it’s hard to imagine what a world where size doesn’t matter would be like.

If size didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be denied employment because of their size. It wouldn’t be commonplace for people to police the food choices of others and to hide behind the claim that “I’m just concerned about your health.” No one would face abuse because of their size or be the butt of bad jokes. There’d be more roles for people of all sizes in movies, and fat people could be cast in roles other than “the fat friend.” Doctors wouldn’t zero in on weight when you go for a check-up. Weight-loss wouldn’t be a popular indicator of physical fitness. Fashionable clothes would be accessible to people of all sizes. No one would spend money on weight loss programs or special “diet” foods. And people wouldn’t post about their weight loss efforts on social media. A show like The Biggest Loser would hold no one’s interest. And the results of the study would be neither here nor there.

I’m sure not everyone believes the research results in this study are depressing. But for those who do, why do they? People want to keep believing that something can be done about being fat. Keeping this possibility alive supports continued discrimination and hate because it throws responsibility back on individuals who are larger than the normative standard.

It’s obvious from the number of people who are attempting to lose weight and keep it off themselves that it’s not only people with normative bodies who are fat phobic. Lots of folks have internalized the cultural messages and experienced the social/economic costs of being larger than what’s deemed okay.

When the costs are real, it can be challenging not to hold out hope for change. If there haven’t been enough other studies about set-points and weight regain and so on, by following a high profile group of “losers,” this particular study shows in sad detail that dieting can and does do serious and permanent metabolic damage to those who diet “successfully.” And that it doesn’t work.

The upshot is, though I would like to think the comment “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” would win the day, sadly, that’s not about to happen. People are too invested in (1) despising fat and (2) making it up to individuals to make the right choices so they won’t be fat to accept what so many already know: dieting doesn’t work.

Can you imagine a world where size doesn’t matter? What does it look like?

body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Are People Really Happy for People Who Lose Weight?

smiley faceThis topic of weight loss has come up quite a bit lately, even though we are a blog that professes (rightly) not to be about weight loss and definitely not about dieting.

I can’t even count the number of posts we’ve written over the years that say fitness is not measured by weight loss (recent case in point: Sam’s musing yesterday).

And anyone who knows me knows well that I do not compliment people on weight loss. Pretty much never, since that time Sam and I both remember all too well when we complimented someone who, in fact, had indeed lost lots of weight — because she had cancer! Yes, that ranks up there with the times in my life I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.  And of course, Sam’s recent weight loss has a lot to do with having her thyroid removed because she had surgery for thyroid cancer in the summer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “you’ve lost weight! you look great!” is not a compliment. Granted, lots of people are trying to lose weight. And, granted, those people probably like it when people notice (maybe?) because heck, they’re trying. Why isn’t it a compliment? Because it implicitly says, “and you used to look like shit, and guess what? I noticed that too!” And it implicitly assumes that everyone wants to lose weight, that losing weight is a good thing in and of itself, that being fat is not good (and looks awful), and that people are entitled to monitor the size of others’ bodies. And all of that is crap that we shouldn’t be assuming and doing.

But here’s something: I wonder whether people are actually happy when someone they know loses weight (not because of cancer, but because of effort)?  The reason I wonder is that at any given time, I would say a good 50% of the people I know are trying to lose weight or thinking about it, and more than 50% of those aren’t successful (not surprisingly, given this and this and this and this and oh so much more!).

So I’m going to go out on a limb here, and it may be a lonely limb that reveals me to be petty and small-minded: a lot of the time, people aren’t actually happy for you when you lose weight. First, there are the killjoy feminists like me who don’t really notice anymore when the people around them lose weight.  I consider the not noticing to be a personal accomplishment of mine.

But even more than that, there are those people who are battling the odds when the odds are heavily not in their favour. That would be the majority of people on a diet or weight loss program, actively trying to lose weight. I’m going to venture that a good portion of those people actually feel a little screw turn in their gut whenever someone they knows beats the odds and actually “succeeds” at that elusive goal: weight loss.

Seeing people who, for whatever reason (sometimes cancer, sometimes dieting, sometimes grief, sometimes — though not nearly as often as we’d like — exercise) drop pounds can start an internal monologue that, far from being thrilled for the person, quickly turns inward to self-flagellation and a sense of failure: If she can do it, why can’t I? What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me? I’m such a failure.

I’m happy for you if that’s never you. But if that’s sometimes you, join the club. Because I do go there, still today–my non-weight loss noticing-self can go there.

So I’m just going to put this out there and be totally frank. I really can’t stand it when people talk about their weight loss. I don’t care what the reasons. I don’t care if you’re trying or not trying. I don’t care if it’s for performance or for looks or just because that’s what friends, family, and strangers like to talk about.

You know, you can dress it up any way you like. But to me it’s such a personal thing that our social world has made into a public thing. And I’m always stumped about what we’re supposed to say. “Good for you!” even when someone is trying just goes against everything that feels right to me. It’s like encouraging something that I see ruin the lives of perfectly excellent people who think that weight loss will afford them something they need in order to feel good about themselves (or better about themselves). I just can’t have the conversation anymore, with anyone. [I like Carly’s suggestion of saying, “how does that feel for you?” but those don’t feel like my words]

So this brings me back to the question of whether people are really happy for people who lose weight. If you’re like me, you’ve read lots of stuff on dieting and weight loss in your time. And they always talk about the saboteurs. Those are the people who want you to eat another helping because they cooked it, or a piece of cake because it’s a special occasion, or chocolate because it’s Valentine’s Day, and therefore thwart your efforts at weight loss. Are they happy when their loved ones lose weight? Sometimes, the literature says, they feel threatened.

And then there are those people who are trying and getting nowhere. Are they happy for you? I’m not so sure. But I think it’s complicated. And that’s because successful weight loss is hard to square with the reality of how difficult it is to lose and maintain weight loss. And so when someone achieves it, we may be a little happy for them (maybe some people are super happy for them), but lots more people just use it as another reason to get down on themselves. And that’s the painful truth for many.

I don’t mean to be saying that that’s the only reason, or even the main reason, I don’t like to talk about weight loss (yours or mine). But it’s not a neutral subject, and it’s loaded with all sorts of cultural meaning that hooks into horrible attitudes that I don’t like to encourage. And even when someone’s reasons aren’t about that stuff, it’s still highly personal and that makes it at the very least an odd thing to advertise and go on about.

I can’t control what others want to talk about, but over the last little while, after a few conversations (with a few different people) that made me squirm and feel uncomfortable, I know for certain that I’m not taking part anymore. And for all of these complicated reasons, I’m going to be totally honest and say I’m happy for people about all sorts of things, but not super happy for someone simply because they’ve lost weight. I realize that makes me sound grumpy and petty, but there it is.

diets · fitness

The newest weight-loss science we don’t need and can’t use

What do we want?

Weight-loss with net gain of lean muscle mass!

When do we want it?

Now! (or within the course of a grueling four-week study that leaves us starving and food-obsessed)

Okay, that’s not very catchy.

But just yesterday the results of a new study came out, courtesy of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and authors Longland et al. comparing the results of higher vs. lower protein diets (plus rigorous exercise) on weight loss and lean muscle mass.  The popular fitness press and protein-supplement manufacturers couldn’t be more pleased, as they trumpet the results, saying “Losing fat while gaining muscle:  it’s possible with the right diet!”

A more measured description of the study is offered by science writer Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times.

…the researchers rounded up 40 overweight young men who were willing to commit to an intensive weight-loss program and divided them in half.

All of the young men began a diet in which their daily calories were cut by about 40 percent (compared to what they needed to maintain weight). But for half of them, this consisted of about 15 percent protein, 35 percent fat and 50 percent carbohydrates.

The other 20 volunteers began a diet that mimicked that of the first group, except that theirs swapped the protein and fat ratios, so that 35 percent of their calories came from protein and 15 percent from fat…

All of the men also began a grueling workout routine. Six days a week they reported to the exercise lab and completed a strenuous full-body weight training circuit, high-intensity intervals, or a series of explosive jumps and other exercises known as plyometric training.

The routine had succeeded in incinerating pounds from all of the participants. The men in both groups weighed about 11 or 12 pounds less, on average.

But it was the composition of that weight loss that differed. Unlike most people on low-calorie diets, the men on the high-protein regimen had actually gained muscle during the month, as much as three pounds of it. So in these men, almost all of the 11 or 12 pounds they had lost over all had been fat.

Here’s the most interesting part of the study, though:

The diet and exercise routine continued for four weeks, by the end of which time, “those guys were done,” said Stuart Phillips, who holds a research chair in skeletal muscle health at McMaster University and oversaw the study. “All they could talk about was food.”

Of course they would.  They were starved for a month on a very low fat diet while made to exercise vigorously.  The study doesn’t say anything about follow up.  My guess is that much of that weight loss disappeared rather quickly in the stampede to the local Dunkin Donuts. This should probably dampen our enthusiasm for these results, to say the least.


Let’s take a moment to look at who this research targets.  The participants were young men, ages 18–30.  The selection criteria for the study limited them also to BMIs under 27 and no more than 15% body fat.  No women were included in the study.  However,

They  [the researchers] plan, too, to study female volunteers and play around with the diets’ composition, to establish definitively that it is extra protein and not reduced fat that promotes muscle gains.

Oh, good.

More seriously, recent obesity research by David Ludwig, suggests that low-fat diets provoke hunger, triggering overeating.  There’s a nice op-ed here outlining some of his recent work.  He also has a recent diet book based on years of such research.  And Ludwig isn’t the only one paying attention to hunger.  Biologist Amanda Salis has also written a diet book based on her research that targets what she calls “the famine reaction”, which is a complex metabolic reaction to calorie (and fat) deprivation (full disclosure: I’m collaborating on a diet study with Salis and other colleagues now). a 40% calorie reduction diet is exactly the sort of plan that, according to Salis’ research, would also provoke extreme hunger with a risk of binge eating.

Of course, the researchers for this study know that this program isn’t designed for long-term use; not even the participants had any interest in continuing:

Of course, by the end of the month, none of the men wished to continue. This type of extreme calorie cutting combined with intense exercise “is not a sustainable program in the long term,” Dr. Phillips said. “It’s more a kind of boot camp,” he said, manageable in the short term by people who are very committed and generally very healthy.

But wait a minute:  the actual participants, who agreed to be enrolled in the study, who were young men under 30 with BMIs under 27, good base cardio fitness, were all ready to head for the hills (or rather, the nearest McDonalds drive-thru) the second the study finished.  This suggests that such a program is “manageable in the short term” by no one, ever.


This is simply not the kind of eating and activity research that is helpful for managing our own lives.  It’s 1) very unpleasant; 2) not sustainable at all; 3) not clearly applicable to almost all of the population; 4) potentially harmful in terms of provoking subsequent uncontrolled eating in response to deprivation.

So if we need a protest mantra, here’s one I would prefer:




Good Advice, Bad Advice: some thoughts from our bloggers on 2015

As this year wraps up, we’ve all been awash in benedictions on 2015 and expectations for 2016. Still, it’s cheering to look forward to fresh slates and new possibilities. This includes fitness. I’ll be posting Sunday on my fitness goals for 2016. For now, as a final adieu to 2015, I asked our bloggers what were some of their favorite fitness advice or revelations for this year. I also asked them what was the worst piece of fitness advice they ran across. Here are some of their responses (edited for brevity).

Let’s start with the revelations and good advice.

Gyms? You don’t necessarily need them.

I let my membership lapse in February, intending to switch to the YMCA; I then experimented with not joining, to see if all my outdoor activities could make the gym redundant. And they did. I cycled as usual with my club… I joined a rowing club in town and was motivated to get out on the water as often as possible because, no gym… I took up yoga at a specialist Iyengar studio in town because I could justify the added cost. And I swam, swam, swam at community pools around town, including my gorgeous outdoor neighbourhood pool.

Now, here we are at the end of the year, deep into winter, and I have no plans to head back to the gym! I am riding outside until it snows, riding my rollers, doing a trainer class with friends, using the ergometers at the rowing club as well as their weight equipment, and I’ve hired a personal trainer that my friends rave about, and indeed he is superb. I don’t miss the gym one bit. It’s true that all this stuff together costs a bit more than a year’s gym membership, but not much. Best of all, I’ve realised that doing sports stuff I love is WAY more fun this way.

Know that you can go slow.

I turned 50 this year and the biggest shift for me was to accept that I’m slowing down and taking longer to recover, that I won’t be in the faster group of runners or cyclists anymore. That was hard to swallow and I fought it. But acknowledging It helped me be present to what is true for me — that I’m 50 and can still ride 525 km through the Vietnamese hills with only my base fitness, I can run 10km with ease and joy — but all only if I slow down, stretch, remember that I’m preserving my body for mobility for another several decades rather than trying to win something in the now. 

For daunting exercises, divide and conquer.

There’s always a couple of exercises in my sets that make me anxious. A friend told me to divide my reps by three and make them more manageable chunks. It works beautifully!

Enjoy the immediate gratification of good feeling that exercise can bring.

Exercise does NOT have to hurt to be beneficial.

Just say NO to fat shaming at your doctor’s office.

Finally, after years of putting off medical care and gritting my teeth when I finally trudged into my doctor’s office, I changed practices and started afresh with someone I could be honest with. I told her I would not agree to be weighed anymore (except at a yearly physical), or unless it was needed (e.g. pre-operative appointment). I explained my position and she didn’t argue with me. I still get asked to be weighed each time to go (even for a cough—argh), but I say no each time and briefly remind them of the conversation we had. I’d prefer not being asked, but I can handle this, and it makes medical appointments much less stressful.

Goals/Schmoals—you can do the movement you do without judgment, assessment, or goals.

I’m trying to get out of the mindset that leads to self judgement when I don’t achieve an arbitrary goal. Self judgement is super demotivating. I have become very mindful of the temptation to critique myself when I don’t run/bike/whatever. Instead, I look to the next opportunity to do it, not because I should, but because I want to take care of myself. It’s resulted in the achievement of goals, ironically. I am now the proud owner of a 10minute mile (6 minute kilometer). It’s not that I’ve abandoned goals altogether, I just don’t take my failure as seriously as I used to.

When you feel the need, go for speed.

Speed work actually works! In swimming and running my times improved from speed drills. I will be doing more of this in my training through the winter. 

No one else is going to call you a failure (so how about don’t do it to yourself?).

I took a trad climbing course this summer. That’s a rock climbing technique where you place your own protection in natural features in the rock instead of clipping into already set bolts. It’s completely terrifying, since it requires even more trust in your own ability than regular rock climbing does. After a particularly knee-shaking, life-choice-questioning climb that weekend, I was once again reminded of a life lesson I probably should have learned by now (I don’t actually think I’ve learned it yet), that most people out there are not the least bit concerned with branding you a failure. And when you come back down off the cliff convinced that your friends will never let you show your face near them again because of whatever inability you have just displayed, you find yourself proven utterly wrong. Because they really don’t care half as much as you do about how good you are at things.

All movement counts—the power of everyday exercise is not to be underestimated.

I’ve blogged about this a bunch, and my experience on sabbatical demonstrated that just being active every day can strengthen me, improve the quality of my sleep, and make me feel happier. I’m keeping it up now that I’m back.

Now to the bad fitness advice to be avoided.

Anything to do with linking fitness and BMI is bad bad bad, especially doctor weigh-ins.

I see a rheumatologist regularly because I have an autoimmune disease; every time I visit her office – EVERY TIME – I have to be weighed and my weight noted in my file. My rheumatologist knows that I am an athlete and we talk a lot about which activities are helpful and/or harmful for the joint condition, and how to mitigate the latter. She’s a very good and sensible doctor, and I know she’s not *asking* for my weight; it’s something that gets done as a matter of routine for all patients by the interns. But why, for heaven’s sake, does it need to be routine? It’s just like the regular weigh-in when I get my physical at the doctor; the nurse duly notes my weight and then gets out the BMI chart. I always want to scream: put that away! It tells you nothing about my body or my health!

It’s one of the things I hate about going to the doctor – it makes me anxious for a good period of time before I head into the appointment room. I get performance anxiety about it. Surely that’s not a good thing?

Just say NO to diet trends.

I find the whole gluten free/paleo/deprive yourself of whatever trendy item is in vogue diet to be quite tiresome [you said it, sister! –caw].

I dislike the endless cycling of diets and “bad” foods everyone is obsessed with. I’m still with Michael Pollans “eat food, not too much, mostly plants “and keep a special place in my heart for carbs if I’m working out hard.

Worst advice was was to eliminate grains & starches from my plate as part of the Prevent weightloss program I’m accessing through work. After a week of feeling deflated and falling asleep every night after dinner for two hours I put grains and starchy foods back on my plate. I need that energy!

Bogus advice from factory farming and self-serving “health” industries: Milk (and its many contaminants), it does a body good.

Once more with feeling: weight loss does NOT equal fitness.

I continue to encounter people (mostly in my practice) that are fixated on the fitness=weight loss equation. By that I mean, fitness is for weight loss or weight loss means I’m getting fit etc. I have become more vocal about steering people away from that as a goal. I try to shift the conversation to taking care of the body by moving it and fueling it well, instead of punishing it and starving it. Punitive strategies never work in the long term and do great damage over time.

Demonizing fatness and body positivity are wrong and scary, and we all have to stand together on this.

The most appalling thing I’ve been exposed to fitness-wise is the sub-group of people who have made it their personal mission to debunk Ragen Chastain and everything she says. People need to get a life. I found it shocking to learn that there are whole blogs devoted to inspecting date stamps on her training photos and so forth to prove that her claims about training can’t be true. Seriously? It’s fat hatred in action. It was enough to make me leave the Pathetic Triathletes group, which made me realize too that I prefer the feminist fitness community that we have cultivated to any other fitness community in the world.

So, readers, what are some of your favorite fitness revelations of the year? Any really bad advice that stands out? Let us know.

And Happy New Year from Fit is a Feminist Issue!

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diets · fitness

Behind the scenes at a no-nonsense for-real weight management course: wrestling demons

As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, we are pummeled with ads promising us that, if we just sign up for some new plan (however loony or expensive it may be), we will be renewed and transformed. Gone will be the extra pounds, the shame of unattractiveness, and the social rejection. In its place will be new-found confidence, social and professional opportunities aplenty, and inner joy. You can see for yourself right here:

new you

We’ll be posting a bit on this blog about the push to turn over a new leaf, start a new regimen, set new goals, and remake ourselves as soon as the calendar year turns over. And we also want to hear from readers, too, about how they are responding to the wave of self-improvement fever.

Not that I’m against self-improvement, or even against enthusiasm about new beginnings. The end of the year is a good time to take stock, reflect on what’s working in your life, what you want to change, and what goals you might want to pursue. However, doing a google search of images related to “new year’s resolution”, almost every image included the following:

lose weight


We all know (from great posts like these among other places) that losing weight may or may not be difficult, but maintaining weight loss over time is nigh unto impossible. But that doesn’t stop people from wanting it badly.

I do research on weight, weight stigma, health, eating and behavior change, have read and written lots about these issues.  But there is no substitute for hearing the stories of the struggles of real people as they try to make a more peaceful and accepting life that includes food.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to attend the last meeting of an 8-week course in Sydney, Australia on weight management run by Ginette Lenham, a counseler, therapist and support group facilitator specializing in weight management issues for women. She counsels women with complex sets of challenges ranging from fertility to gynecological to endocrine to psychological, working on how to respond to emotional eating and other triggers in their lives. Her website is here.

The stories these women shared were not surprising, but they were revealing. Here are some stories, and the underlying messages I am going to guard against as I face the new-year pull to remake myself in a more skinny image. These messages are powerful, but they are not true. The women in that room shared them in order to expose them for the falsehoods they are, and get some help in doing battle against them.

Message: Weight equals worth and status as a person

“You know, your position in a social hierarchy can change enormously with weight loss or gain. When you’re obese, people don’t see you as a person with control or discipline. My friends who have known me a long time (when I was thinner) have more confidence in me, in my abilities, than my newer friends (who only know me as fat). They think an obese person is a different sort of person, not a person like them.”

Message: Weight loss will fix any ailment

 “I joined a running club; it’s really helped my motivation and improved my performance. I was having trouble recently with getting blisters and talked with someone about it. She said, ‘oh—after I lost a lot of weight, I stopped getting them’. Argh! “

“One woman in our running club won an award; at the ceremony, all they talked about was how much weight she had lost.”

Message: There are ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, and it’s never okay to eat ‘bad’ foods

“I used to work as a waitress, and women were always apologizing for their orders. They would say to me, ‘I’ll have this cake but I won’t have any dinner.’”

Message: Eating “right” is a “natural” ability, which some have and some don’t

“I look at my kids to see how they are eating—what they eat and what they leave behind on the plate. I have no idea what to do, or how to eat intuitively.”

“Some people are just stronger and they know when to stop.”

Ginette’s approach is largely about helping people to identify these negative messages and then to set aside those harsh judgments, focusing instead on individual health and life goals. This is a long-term process, and is not about learning to love salad. There’s no gimmickry—no magic pill to swallow, no exercise machine to use. Will it result in weight loss? Maybe, maybe not. What she hopes for her clients is of course some solutions to their complex medical problems, some of which are weight-related, but more importantly, in her own words, “you can learn to be liberated from all the negative self-talk that is associated with your previous weight loss experiences.”

Now that’s a new year’s resolution worth making.

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Weekends with Womack

“Obese” is a bad word—it’s got to go

(Hi folks– sorry for the late Weekends with Womack post; technical difficulties down under.  Thanks for your patience.  Now to the post…)

We use a lot of words to describe large (or large-ish) bodies:

For instance: fat, plump, hefty, bulky, rotund, pudgy, chunky, portly, heavyset, stout—I found 46 synonyms here. Roly-poly may be my favorite one.

Here’s one I don’t think we should use anymore:


Why not? In some ways, “obese” seems less pejorative and less judge-y than those other words. In fact, it’s really just a clinical word, with a precise definition; nothing to be upset about. Most adults with a BMI of 30 or higher are considered obese by medical definition. It’s also easy to determine when it applies. I can weigh myself, measure my height, consult my handy BMI chart (like the one below) and determine reasonably accurately my BMI.


So why do I think it’s a bad word? Two types of reasons, one scientific and one ethical.

The scientific reasons to get rid of “obese/obesity”: the term “obesity” applies to anyone with a BMI of 30 or higher. But why does medicine and public health use this term? The main idea is that if you are obese, you are in a medically deficient state that needs addressing. In particular, you are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, orthopedic problems, sleep apnea, and some reproductive problems, among other things. Some of these conditions are potentially life-threatening, so losing weight and becoming non-obese is a compelling health goal. That’s the story.

But is it true? No, not as stated above. Not all BMI numbers 30 and above are created equal. In a widely-cited 2013 study, Katherine Flegal and her co-authors found that people with BMIs 30—35 did not have a higher risk of death than people with BMIs in the 18.5—24 range (called the normal range). Higher risks of death were documented in BMI ranges above 35. And lower risks of death were documented for those in the “overweight” range—25—29.

This news was not taken well; medical and public health professionals unleashed vitriolic criticisms. A Nature article on the topic discussed the problem here:

The result seemed to counter decades of advice to avoid even modest weight gain, provoking coverage in most major news outlets — and a hostile backlash from some public-health experts. “This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,” said Walter Willett, a leading nutrition and epidemiology researcher at the Harvard school, in a radio interview. Willett later organized the Harvard symposium — where speakers lined up to critique Flegal’s study — to counteract that coverage and highlight what he and his colleagues saw as problems with the paper. “The Flegal paper was so flawed, so misleading, and so confusing to so many people, we thought it really would be important to dig down more deeply,” Willett says.

But in fact Flegal’s results have been duplicated and even extended to show that “obesity” just isn’t a useful word to refer to a medical condition. In this article, Ann Barnes cites US data that shows that weight affects life expectancy differently in white women and black women—for black women, weight isn’t a risk factor until a BMI of 40 is reached, vs. a BMI of 30 for white women.

There is a lot more data out there showing that what we call “obesity” is not one category at all—it is a range of different categories that apply differently to groups depending on age, race, ethnicity, gender, income, geographic location, etc. One size-name simply doesn’t fit all.

There’s more to say about this (there’s always more to say…) but I’ll now turn to the ethical reasons not to use the terms “obese” or “obesity”. My friend Stacy co-wrote this fantastic article about the socio-political meanings that have been attached to the term “obesity”, and I quote from their article below:

In this… social and political sense, obesity is associated with powerful negatives, stemming from both long-standing prejudice and recent public health framing. These include epidemic threat, devastating impending costs, tragedy (particularly children routinely dying before their parents), as well as poor character in obese individuals, who are frequently implied to be lazy, to lack willpower, to be greedy, or to shirk personal responsibility. This view is used to legitimize the well-documented discrimination experienced by heavier people, especially women, particularly younger women and girls. For people above normal weight, then, public discussion of obesity is fraught.

Obesity in the sociopolitical sense also became institutionalized fairly rapidly in universities and governments in the late 20th century. There are now obesity strategies, government departments responsible for obesity, obesity handbooks, professorial chairs, university research centers, websites, Twitter feeds, and advocacy groups with the word obesity in their titles. So obesity as an amorphous but potent social and political concept now raises the stakes in many settings, engendering blame, inducing strong feelings, and providing the focus for many people’s professional roles and identities.

In short, shouting “obesity” in a crowded doctor’s office raises alarms, brings on waves of shame, provokes stern and dire warnings, and puts everyone on notice: Something. Must. Be. Done. Now.  But maybe nothing needs to be done.  Or maybe something does need to be done, but what that is will vary a lot, depending on a bunch of complex factors.  It’s not a uniform call to lose weight, come what may.

I know, we can’t solve these problems just by getting rid of the words. But getting rid of them would be a step towards acknowledging that the story about weight, health, and illness is a very complex one, and using “obese/obesity” confuses us, misleads us, shames us and blames us. So let’s get rid of it. When we need to talk about people’s weight, there are lots of other words around—let’s use them instead.