Diving into September

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Even if you aren’t going back to school right now, you probably feel the energy of newness that is September. Here in Boston, where the population feels as if it doubles this month when the students come in droves, there is a fresh-start kind of feeling that permeates the air. I can close my eyes and imagine the smell of new text books, the clang of the cafeteria, the crisp autumn evenings that viscerally feel like back-to-school. It’s in my neural pathways to feel the pull of new, creative energy in the fall.

At the same time, I’ll admit that my blogging joints are rusty. My laptop got a lot of rest this summer, rightfully so, and it’s hard to dive back in to my writing practice.

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“Diving in” was the theme that came to me when I asked myself and the universe what to write about. I saw two clients yesterday that were diving in to new experiences in their lives: one a new relationship and one a new job. Both experienced a lot of trepidation about the changes before them. Change can be scary. Even though the outcome might be positive, change takes us out of our comfort zones for awhile and makes us feel vulnerable — and maybe even a little lost.

The experiences of fear and trepidation about change in my clients’ love and work lives were not unlike the fear and trepidation that they experienced in their nutrition therapy work. Both came to me for different types of disordered eating: one for anorexia nervosa and one for binge eating disorder. Their deep desire to change, coupled with their fear of change, were nevertheless very similar. Their eating behaviors (restricting or binging) were disturbing to them and harming their health overall, but they both were having a hard time letting go. The eating behaviors were serving a purpose, soothing in some way, and helping them negotiate change and stress in their lives by giving them some relief, comfort, and escape.  In the nutrition therapy work, they both learned to listen to their bodies more closely, interrupt the destructive comments that came into their heads about what they should and shouldn’t eat, and trust their intuitions about what is best for them to eat.

Boo Dove into Some Laundry

Boo Dove into Some Laundry

This work spilled over into the bigger issues of life. In fact, if I have learned one thing from my work, it’s that food issues are microcosms for larger life issues — as well as an embodiment of pain, stress, and conflict. The client who was entering a new relationship had to learn to ask for what she needed more clearly, negotiating the boundaries of the partnership. The client who was starting a new job needed to really sink into “what is best for me” in his job search, instead of getting lost in the “shoulds.” Both of them negotiated these significant life changes so much better because they were really doing the hard work on their disordered eating. Dancing outside their comfort zones was something that they were starting to become familiar with.

In both of these cases, with food and with life, my clients needed to let go of their fears (acknowledging them first, but not sinking into them) and then just dive in. I like the image of “diving in” because I’m not really ready for summer to be over. So many times this summer I dove head first into water that was just a bit too cold to be comfy. (It’s one of my favorite things to do.) I called it my “reset button.” When I felt stuck, I’d go jump in the lake or the pond or the ocean and suddenly everything was new.

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So, as the crisp September air beckons (at least here in New England) and the back-to-school energy encourages a fresh start, think about what it is that you need to dive into — both in your quest to improve your relationship with food and body, and in your greater life. Chances are your practice of listening to and nourishing your body more clearly will also be useful when listening to and nourishing your deepest desires and dreams for your life.


Life is really fairly short. Sometimes shorter than we ever imagine. Nothing lasts forever. We don’t last forever. So why not dive in to what feels (and tastes) delicious right now…?

I look forward to a another year at the blog with you, as you navigate your own particular journey.  Thank you for all the sharing — privately and publicly — that you have done with me in the past year since this blog first became a reality. I am deeply grateful for the feedback, comments, and regular reading of the words that come out of me from work that has nourished and transformed so many. In the process, I have become transformed as its witness.

Blessings and gratitude,    Heidi


"I'm So Fat" and Other Lies

After a bit of a summer hiatus, it felt like time for me pull out the laptop and blog again. Today I was both saddened and struck by the crippling negative body talk of my clients.  In fact, if we look around, we hear it all over. It’s as if it is completely reasonable to bash our bodies at every street corner.

    “This makes me look fat.”  
    “Oh, she’s really let herself go…”
    “I probably shouldn’t eat this. I’m too fat already.”

And, the seemingly complimentary, but just as vicious…

    “Oh, you look so good! Did you lose weight?”

Somehow, our moral fabric gets attached to our body shape and size. These comments, while innocent at first glance, can be demoralizing. In fact, some of my clients have comments like these going on in their heads so much all day that it’s hard for them to focus on much else. Other clients further along in their recovery may be able to challenge those thoughts and function well in their lives, but still feel a debilitating sense of shame and disgust around their bodies in the background.

Why do we pick on ourselves so much?

Why do we narrowly see one body type as ideal and all strive to fit into that mold?

Why is fat-ism the last real sanctioned “ism” out there?

I’m not going to answer these questions because they aren’t easy to answer in full. I could write about the cultural changes in body types over the years and the way Marilyn Monroe’s size 12 would be unacceptable in a decade where there is now a size 000. (Don’t even get me started on that one!) I could write about the way the beauty industry insists on making us (particularly women) feel bad about our appearance by airbrushing pores, photoshopping thighs, and giving us a picture of women that is downright fake. After all, if we felt really good about ourselves, then we probably wouldn’t buy that face cream or lipstick or diet product. I could write about the way that subtle comments about weight to a “chubby” child go destructively deep and erode self-esteem. I hear about this childhood shame in the stories of so many of my clients who struggle with disordered eating for decades.

Actually, I’m going to write a bit about the fact that negative body thoughts (who doesn’t have them?) can go awry and become the foundation on which develops a terrible relationship with food and fitness — and, for some, ultimately an eating disorder. I’m also going to invite you to think about and reframe the ways in which you talk to yourself (and those around you) about body weight and shape.

After working with beautiful — truly beautiful inside and out — women and men over the last 16 years, it still makes me deeply sad when I hear the crushing negative body talk that comes out of the mouths of my clients. These are people who are successful, smart, funny, articulate, creative, uniquely gifted — but they cannot see it because all they see is how fat they are. It doesn’t matter how much they weigh, either. They can be underweight or overweight according to medical standards; what matters most is that they feel less than their full selves because of the way that their bodies look.

When someone feels bad about her body — when she feels that she must be smaller than who she is in the present — she is more likely to go on a diet, make food choices that reflect restriction rather than pleasure, exercise to exhaustion and not for enjoyment, and walk around with a general sense of being defective and too much. When these negative body thoughts and the behaviors that stem from them become constant, obsessive, and distracting from the rest of life, then an eating disorder can develop. Eating disorders are the number one killer of all the psychiatric illnesses. It is seriously dangerous for children, adolescents, and adults to go down this path, yet we see so many examples of the way bad body talk is somehow acceptable in our society. How many times have you overheard a bunch of women criticize their bodies, as if this was a way to bond? Yuck.

What really happens, though, when negative body thoughts (again, who doesn’t have them once in awhile?) really go all wrong? How does this thinking get out of control and develop into eating disorders for some and not others?

There are so many factors — genetic, temperamental, and environmental among them — that predispose some people to eating disorders. What I’ve noticed frequently is that disregulated eating and bad body thoughts become a way to take feelings that something is just not right and make them concrete. “I don’t like myself” becomes “I don’t like my body.” “Something is not right” becomes easier to articulate if we say, “Something is not right with my body.” If we don’t like our bodies, well, the internet says that we can do all kinds of things to change them. But all the green smoothies and cross-fit in the world won’t make us like ourselves any more, or compensate for painful feelings that we need to express, or make what feels wrong about our lives really go away. The diet industry likes to feed us the image that if we just change our bodies we can feel good and change our lives, but it’s really not that simple.

Some of my clients “lose the weight” and realize that they don’t really feel much better about themselves. Sometimes they try losing more weight and get dangerously low. How devastating to find out that losing weight is never the answer to life-long happiness. If it is, well, they often realize that it’s a pretty shallow life that their deeper, truer selves aren’t so interested in living.

Now, mind you, I’m not bashing good self and body care. I’m a nutritionist, after all. And a dancer. I believe in taking good care of the amazing bodies that we have been blessed with this lifetime. I work on helping my clients come to an appreciation of the wonderful part of us that the body is. But our bodies are just one part of who we are. I might make a body connection when I dance with a partner and that’s lovely, but it’s the people that I make heart and soul connections with that really keep me coming back.

Loving our bodies starts, in my opinion and in my practice, with loving ourselves and with seeing our bodies as an extension of that self-love. I want to challenge all of you reading — whether you struggle with disordered eating, are in recovery, or are just reading because you enjoy my banter on this topic — to ask yourself the following question when you say something negative (out loud or in your mind) about your body. Ask yourself: What’s really wrong right now?

I’m serious. Just do it. Are these bad body thoughts coming up because you feel inadequate talking to someone that you admire? Are they coming up because you are feeling judged by a family member? Are you feeling fat because your dieting friend is ordering the burger without a bun and you wonder if you should, too? Or are you feeling fat because you just ran up the stairs and feel more breathless than last week? Fat is really not a feeling. It’s tougher to get in touch with other deeper feelings of shame, inadequacy, fear, loneliness, and grief that might be under those negative body thoughts. The body is a great container for our negative energy.

When you feel bad about your body and ask yourself the question “What’s really wrong now?” you get to what you are really feeling in the present moment. When you do so, you may be less likely to use food (over- or under-indulgence) or exercise in a way that is self-destructive. You may, with practice over time, be able to substitute the destructive eating behavior with something that more effectively addresses the feelings underneath. Some of my clients have noticed, after careful reflection, that they use food restriction, binge eating, purging, or hyper-exercise as a self-punishment. They really do feel terrible about themselves, and these activities make their internal struggle concrete and real — in real time. They embody their pain.

Once you notice what might be behind your negative body thoughts, examine what doesn’t feel right — either on your own or with a trusted friend or therapist. Don’t succumb to body bashing just because it’s socially acceptable. We can’t even begin to take good care of the bodies that we have if we loathe them or, even more significantly, if we loathe the person within. I don’t find that clients can make a lot of headway in their nutrition therapy if they are also not doing the work on understanding and caring for their deeper, unique selves.

Don’t allow the negative body thoughts to swim about in your heads. Don’t stay on the surface and say that you’d only be happy if [insert transformative body change here]. Question those negative thoughts. Be curious about them. Listen to what they are trying to say is wrong in your life. Don’t be afraid to squirm when you discover the answers. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s worth examining some painful truths to eventually come to a place of body-acceptance and self-love.

Have a deeply nurturing, restful summer. I look forward to more regularly supporting your journey toward a healthy relationship with food and body here at the blog in September…


Zen and the Art of Chopping Vegetables

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Themes in my work these past few weeks have been about self-care and self-compassion. Couldn’t we all use a little bit more of these…?

Self-care can be a challenge in our busy lives. We spend so much time attending to our work, our children, our friends, our homes, our communities — and all of that is wonderful and rewarding. But does care of our Selves often get squeezed out of the day? Yes, indeed.

I believe that so many of our chronic diseases, our mental illnesses, and our growing fatigues may be related to deficits in self-care. This might mean simply failing to check in with ourselves, appreciating what we are feeling, and knowing when enough is enough. Sometimes we realize, at the end of the day, that we are depleted. We eat as a reward or treat — or to give ourselves something good when the day has left us little energy for anything else. Or, conversely, we restrict or obsess about our food as a way to feel better about and feel more in control of our lives.

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We all want lives that are our own, full of joy-filled activities and meaningful moments. We really do want to learn and grow from our mistakes and challenges in life, but we often punish ourselves instead. Sometimes with over- or under-indulgence of food or other pleasures.

Why do we do this…?!

We do this because food is tied so closely to expressing our larger needs and hungers — and it has been so since the time that we cried for our mother’s care and feeding on our first day as a human being. Whether we want it to be or not, food will always be associated with love and care and asking for what we need. Our brains are wired that way. So, no wonder the disregulated eaters are many, and I’ve been busy doing this work for nearly 20 years!  Now that I am blogging, my aim is to discuss what it takes to heal from this over- or under-eating and to give hope to those on this path.

Mindfulness is one of the most helpful practices for healing from disregulated (a kinder, broader term than “disordered”) eating and for cultivating more intuitive eating. The dictionary defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” It sounds rather simple, but, in practice, mindfulness can be challenging — particularly in our fast-paced, multi-tasking world.

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When I work with clients to cultivate mindfulness in their eating experiences, amazing things happen (but, sorry, not overnight). Gradually, and with practice, disregulated eaters begin to identify the triggers to their un-attuned food choices and behaviors, question whether those choices and behaviors are in their best interest, and begin to make choices that are more aligned with self-care.

One of my favorite mindfulness techniques that I will share with you all today is what I call “The Zen of Chopping Vegetables.” I use this particularly with clients who overeat compulsively, but anyone who eats mindlessly at times could benefit. And it need not be done with just vegetables. It’s really about taking in the sensory environment of whatever foods are being prepared. It’s just that veggies are so colorful and make such a satisfying sound when they are cut. (So much so that when I cut something on a wooden cutting board, the sound makes our pet guinea pigs in the other room squeak in Pavlovian excitement.)

I’m sure many of you — perhaps all of you reading — have chopped vegetables. But have you really chopped vegetables…? I’m talking clear the clutter from your heads, examine that juicy carrot in it’s fullness of color and crispness, and chop away. Notice the sound, the texture, the rhythm of the knife on the cutting board. Now take a vegetable of a different color and texture. Notice the different sound the knife makes on the board, the change in juiciness, the feel of the experience. Notice the patterns on the inside of the vegetable. This exercise is exposing what prep-chefs in restaurant kitchens know already: preparing food is relaxing, transporting, sensual.

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When you get bored of being so in-tune with what you are doing (and you will, it’s the nature of the mind), then imagine where the food comes from, how it was grown, who tended it, and how it got to your kitchen — all the many steps. Acknowledge the miracle that is our nourishment. Now, chop some more. Tune in to the other parts of the meal with the same mindful attention, as if this was going to be your last meal and you really want to savor the experience. You may notice that the process of preparing food can be almost as nourishing as eating it. Almost.

Now, I’m hearing you say, “When in the world do I have time to chop vegetables like this? I only have a half-hour to get dinner on the table for a family of four!” I hear you. Most of the time, I can’t zen-out in the kitchen either. But, I guarantee that if you commit to mindful food preparation practice at least once per week (and ideally more in small doses here and there), you will enjoy those less-mindful times more. You will have slowly, but surely re-wired your brain to relax and nourish yourself more in the act of feeding yourself and others. Instead of a “should” or a “chore,” food preparation can feel like taking good care of your body and soul. It can be a peaceful respite from life’s more stressful thoughts, feelings, and activities.

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And, again, this won’t happen overnight. But by cultivating awareness of, nonjudgmental attention to, and gratitude for the foods that you are preparing, you will slowly appreciate the act of feeding yourself differently. There is little room for obsession, judgement, and mindless binging in the purest form of this sort of practice. If you notice judgement, emotions, thoughts come up; then do notice them, but return your focus to self-care, gratitude, and the sounds and smells that are before you. In the present moment. Right now.

Try it and see what it does for your eating and self-care. It’s just one of many mindfulness practices that clients have found helpful on the path toward healthful, balanced, more self- and body-attuned eating. The act of taking food preparation slowly — the way it used to be done out of necessity — can be healing and relaxing and kind of meditative. But you really want to allow yourself the space and the self-compassion to know that it won’t be easy at first. The simple act of preparing a colorful vegetable or fruit salad — or any baked good or main dish, for that matter — really can be nourishing on so many sensory levels. Allow yourself the time and attention and spaciousness to really notice.


Eating Disorders are Like Compost: Trash to Treasure

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Okay, okay. I’m going to get a little corny this week. After the coldest, longest winter Boston has seen in a while, I’m feeling positively giddy about Spring. So, forgive me the gardening metaphor, but I think it works. This week I was digging around in my compost bin. I dug through layers of leaves, weeds, and scraps of food to get down to the nutritional gold: gorgeous, mineral-rich soil. Organic gardening is my dirty little hobby, and I enjoy seeing the miracles that come from layering goat manure from a friend’s backyard farm with compost made from egg shells, fruit peels, and wilted lettuce leaves from the previous couple of years.

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I was deep into my digging, feeling my connection to the earth and how good it felt to use my body to connect with it, when the theme for this blog post came to me. Here I was, taking all the food scraps that would normally be thrown into the trash and mixing them with other backyard trash (leaves, grass clippings, weeds). With the help of rain, insects, and heat, what once was trash becomes treasure. The end result, with time, is extremely healthy, rich soil that makes my garden grow. The vegetables and herbs that my daughters and I grow from tiny seeds in our sunny front yard each year come out of that rich soil. They are fed and nourished and flourish because I put my old banana peels and raked-up leaves to work for them. The food scraps go back to the earth and, in turn, feed the next year’s crop of food. The cycle continues. How cool is that…?

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It got me thinking, as I was digging through the kinda gross layers of not-quite-composted food to get to the good stuff on the bottom, that eating disorders are like this. (Bear with me here…) My clients with disordered and disregulated eating have a lot they struggle with. There is the food, weight, and body image issues — and there is all of the other struggles that go on underneath these (like trauma, shame, depression, anxiety, low-self-esteem, self-judgement  — to name a few). Working through one’s relationship with food and body, when those relationships have become challenged, is truly hard work. My clients do this hard work; it is not usually fun. But the outcome of doing this work is so worth it. Repairing your relationship with food, learning to love and accept your body and your Self, working through the issues that brought you to use food emotionally… it’s quite an amazing journey. In the process, you get to know yourself intimately, heal some wounds, and discover how to truly take good care of your body, mind, and spirit.

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Clients who have done their recovery work and really embrace their lives often write to me about what a gift their eating disorder was, in the end. Of course, they couldn’t see that when they were in the throes of it. Digging through the non-quite-composted layers in my bin, I encountered biting ants (ouch) and smelly things. However, with time and patience, those icky layers will become earthy gold: soil that produces new blossoms, ripe fruits. Sometimes we just have to dig through the muck to get to the gold. Sometimes we have to examine the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, the parts of ourselves that have been hurt or challenged or hidden. In recovery, we allow ourselves to be nourished with not only good food, but good company. We learn to water and feed and tend to ourselves in a way that allows us to realize our full potentials and give to others around us. In recovery, we take a dark time in our lives and grow from it.

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My clients are doing this every day. If I hadn’t had my eating disorder decades ago, I might not be doing this work that I love and that helps others find their own paths to wellness, healing, and hope. If you are hanging out in the icky layers of the compost bin (and we all have our moments with the worms, no matter how far along in our growth we think we are), know that it’s worth digging deeper and giving yourself time to get to the earthy, rich soil within. It’s worth getting dirty and getting grounded. Working through to that bottom layer brings the outcomes of good soil: creativity, growth, and ripe, luscious fruit.

(I hope my metaphor worked for you. If it didn’t, you can just toss it in your compost bin and compose your own.)

“The grass is always greener where you water it.”

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“The grass is always greener where you water it.”  This seems like an appropriate quote for the Spring, coming a bit later than usual here in New England. (If any of you know who said this, please let me know. I saw it printed with "unknown" after it.) In any case, it seems rather obvious that the grass is greener where it’s tended. One of my clients repeatedly says that she thinks that my work is to point out the obvious that she somehow forgets. Yes, when we take good care of ourselves — when we water that grass — it grows. We grow. Instead of gazing at our neighbor’s green grass (or our neighbor’s body, possessions, partner, whatever…) we can cultivate a greener lawn within ourselves by practicing good self-care.

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Some of us are afraid to practice self-care for fear of being seen as selfish or self-serving or self-absorbed. But these are different states than true care of the Self. Care of the Self fills you up and allows you to be more generous in the world, to give of your own unique gifts, and to give without feeling resentful and depleted on the other end.

But this is no easy task for some of us. It’s a real dance…

So how do we practice good self-care — when it comes to food or anything else? How do we know when we’ve eaten enough or the right things for our unique bodies? How do we know how much physical activity is enough to make us feel good and increase our health without taxing our immune system and making us feel exhausted? How do we really know when enough is enough in our work, relationships, sleep, socializing, or other habits that take time and energy in our lives…?

My Nondiet Book Club is reading Karen Koenig’s book Starting Monday, a terrific read that really lays out the issues underneath disordered and (I like her term better) “disregulated” eating. It’s a challenging book to read, as she asks so many really right-on questions. Chapter 8 is titled “Know What’s Enough,” and I wholeheartedly recommend this chapter (ideally while reading the rest of the book) to anyone who feels that they have trouble with eating. If you go back and forth between under-eating and over-eating — or if you just can’t seem to find a balanced eating style that works for you — this chapter might resonate.

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My favorite thing about Karen Koenig is that she cuts to the chase, exposes our vulnerabilities, but doesn’t just leave us hanging. She generally talks about concrete steps to take, once she points out the issues that get us stuck. Trial and Error is one of the strategies that she writes about in order to figure out how much is enough for you — with food, exercise, work, and in negotiating your needs in relationships. This is one of those (like, duh) really obvious strategies, but yet we are often afraid to employ it. We have to really experiment with how much is enough to know what works for us. Searching out other people’s green grass (“she looks so great, so I want to eat like her”) won’t cut it when you are trying to figure out the way to eat that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all eating or exercise plan, just like there is no one-size fits-all-amount of work that is right for everyone. Everyone has different thresholds for movement, intimacy, exploration in nature, need for quiet, and need for stimulation.

We are all such wacky, interesting, unique beings, but we often look to others to decide what is best for us.  Other people’s green grass might be nice to look at, for sure, but if we don’t play around in our own gardens, then we miss out on the lushness of a fully lived life.

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Trial and Error, as Karen Koenig writes, means trying different foods and really noticing what tastes and feels good. This takes some time and attention. It means cultivating trust in yourself by having an idea and not being too afraid to test it out and see how it feels, even if it’s something that no one else around you has considered. Just a few examples of what you might come up with as you apply Trial and Error to self-care include:

  • I need to have a solid breakfast in order to have balanced eating the rest of the day.
  • I need at least 7 hours of sleep in order to feel focused and alert.
  • Working out 4 times per week is just right for me.
  • Getting together with friends in person a couple of times per week helps me feel connected.

Create your own set of theories around what you need to feel balanced and test them out. How do you feel? Was your idea too much, too little, or just enough? When I started blogging I heard someone say that I had to blog every week. Someone else said to just blog when the mood hit me. I finally settled on every other week (with exceptions like two weeks ago when I had other priorities), as that helped me stay with my writing practice in a way that fit with my current life. It also gave me a sense of discipline and consistency that helps me stay on track. If I tried to blog more often, it felt like a chore that I didn’t have quite enough time for; less often and I lost momentum and missed it. I found my “enough” and it feels right. For now.

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Practice listening to your own sense of enoughness with food each day — and notice that sometimes a whole sandwich is just right, sometimes a half. Notice what types of foods make your body and mind feel good. Practice listening to your sense of enoughness with other things in life, too. Just because everyone in your office works 50+ hours each week doesn’t mean that this lifestyle is healthiest for you. As you pay attention to your own needs and limits and gradually learn to trust yourself more, you will develop the ability to take good care of yourself.  Karen Koenig writes, “Trust produces confidence, which produces more trust, and each reinforces the other.”

I find this work on “enough” is one of the last frontiers of eating disorders recovery, and it’s often something that has to be revisited even by those of us who are quite far along in recovery. The issues come up more often around other things than food — and food is no longer used as a way to deal with challenges of enoughness. Through the process of recovering from disregulated eating, one’s sense of being enough, doing enough, and saying “enough-is-enough” generally gets easier over time. At a certain point in recovery, we stop choosing to eat (or starve) to make us feel better. Instead, we ask for what we really need and soothe our own disregulated emotions. By directly honoring our needs and emotions, we learn how to take good care of ourselves.

As you tend to your own growth this Spring, notice that green grass of your neighbor, but please don’t forget to water and care for your very own garden.

It’s Spring! Detox Your Body Image!

Spring Detox Cleanse Your Body Image

The sun is shining (finally) in Boston and it’s feeling like Spring. It’s time for me to blog again about body image…

So what does body image have to do with health and nutrition…? Everything! In fact, it’s one of the things that can hold back our best efforts to take good care of ourselves and eat well.

This week I saw a client who has been making progress in her eating disorder recovery. She’s been eating more intuitively and feeling good about herself, focusing more on her relationship with food instead of her weight. Then, BAM, she goes in for a doctor’s appointment and has to step on the scale. (Well, she didn’t really have to, but she did.) Her body and weight concerns quadrupled and she started to doubt all the real progress she was making. Then, perhaps not coincidentally, she hung out for a bit with the jeans in her closet that don’t fit any more.

Now why would she do that to herself? Why sink back into a place of body loathing when she has been working so hard on body acceptance? I wondered with her if being confident, self-assured, and asking for what she needs (from food, from anybody) is just less familiar than feeling bad. She knows she doesn’t enjoy focusing on what she doesn’t like about her body, but there is some sick kind of comfort in it. So many times I see clients make progress and start to feel great about themselves; then they pull out those skinny jeans that no longer fit. Just this act puts them right back in a place of self-loathing, judgment, and feeling “less than.”

Crocus Detox Spring Cleanse

When I talked to my client further about her resistance to telling the doctor not to weigh her (when the appointment had nothing to do with her weight) or donating the ill-fitting jeans, she admitted that she is afraid that she needs the scale and the jeans to “keep herself in check.” If she doesn’t have the jeans in her closet, she might “let herself go” and gain too much weight. Exploring further, she admits to worrying that if she asks for what she needs, she will be “too much,” her needs will be too great. In her inner world, it’s better to be small, not needy, more in control.

How many women out there worry about taking up too much space, needing too much, being too demanding or too “big?” Well, a lot of us do — and it’s not just women. My client was willing to let the jeans decide if she was good enough, despite all the work that she has done on her personal growth.

Are you measuring your self-worth with a scale or a pair of skinny jeans or some other summery item of clothing that you may try on in the next several weeks? My next thoughts are for my fellow New Englanders and those who live in seasonal climates…

Guinea Pigs Spring Detox Cleanse

Here in Massachusetts, it gets really cold in winter. (Okay, yes, all you mid-westerners may say that we don’t know just how cold it can get, but bear with me.) I noticed that my children’s guinea pigs (who regular blog readers are familiar with) got quite a bit rounder this winter. They adapt to the cold, eating more to keep warm. Then, they lose the weight naturally when the weather gets warmer. They go outside more and hibernate in their warm spaces less. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us tried on that bathing suit and said, “Oh, look, I put on a little winter weight this year. Well, by the time I need to wear this, it’ll fit,” and just let nature take it’s course?

Don’t we all crave heavier foods in winter and lighter foods in the summer? If you can find a normal eater who’s not dieting or cutting back on her food in any way, you will see that she often notices this natural shift in weight and doesn’t freak out about it. Those that freak out about it — and diet like crazy in April and May — all too often end up experiencing unhealthy weight-cycling. Many of my clients struggle each year with food in the Spring, instead of simply noticing the ebbs and flows of weight that can just happen in their lives. I wish for them to know the truth (and I rarely admit to knowing any truths) that deep down they are the same wonderful people, despite weight fluctuations.

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We all want to feel good in our bodies. We all want to have vitality and strength and lightness of being. But putting too much emphasis on whether or not we can fit into a pair of jeans or a summer dress is a recipe for low self-esteem and a troubled relationship with food and exercise. I have a wish for you, as you enjoy the brighter days of Spring: take everything that doesn’t fit you in your closet and donate it or consign it or give it to a friend who will wear it. Why do we hold on to these things (anything, really) that makes us feel less than the stellar beings that we are? Wear things that make you feel good, express something about you and who you are, and always remember that you are SOOOOO much more than the size of your jeans.

Spot-Clean Eating

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People are talking a lot lately about “Clean Eating.” Now, I’m all for a let’s-get-back-to-recognizing-our-food way of life. I appreciate shorter ingredients lists (ones where I can find whole foods listed and not chemicals). I like shopping at farmers’ markets, eating seasonally and locally. I believe in all of this, and I believe that our bodies and the planet benefit from eating this way. But as a nutrition therapist and eating disorders specialist, I worry about taking even clean eating too far.

One of my clients this morning described a dilemma she felt while eating in an airport. She prefers to eat free-range organic chicken, but the only option on the airport menu that looked remotely appealing and nourishing enough for how hungry she felt was a wrap sandwich that contained chicken. She knew it was highly unlikely that it was organic, free-range chicken at this restaurant, and she wanted to know what she “should” have done? I told her that only she could answer that question.

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We defined my client’s conflict and erased the “should” from the equation. (One of my favorite exercises lately.) The conflict occurred in her own mind. On the one side, she valued eating a certain way and preferred to choose sources of meat that were humanely raised. This stemmed from her desire to take care of her body and what she put into it, as well as her concern for the planet. On the other side, she has learned, after many years of failed diets, that she benefits on many levels when she eats in a balanced, health-sustaining way. This means balanced meals with solid protein in them, choosing foods that she really likes. She desires to care for her body and soul by doing so.

She was in a dilemma. A conflict. She had two opposing desires and she needed to eat. She could have chosen the sandwich or something else. That ultimately doesn’t matter.  Really.  What matters is that she was able to notice the conflict and resolve it somehow. She didn't give her food choice too much power to make her feel virtuous or bad, wrong or right. She made a decision and was able to live with it. The fact that she needed to check in with me about whether it was “ok” or not, though, speaks to the work that she still wants to do in learning to trust herself. My client actually does know how to feed herself well, but she wanted to make sure that she hadn’t made a bad choice. Again, there are no bad or good choices. Only choices, made either consciously or unconsciously. There was no question that my client had made a conscious food choice, taking her own values, needs, and desires into account. What food she actually chose didn’t ultimately matter! She would either feel good in her body and mind and move on, or not feel so good and learn from it for next time. No judgement; just noticing...

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Now, Heidi, you might say, isn’t it clear that some foods are really more healthful than others…? But, remember, I’m not talking about unconscious eating here. I truly believe that when we make conscious choices, thinking about or own innate preferences as well as what foods feel best in our bodies (this sometimes takes trial and error), we end up eating in a balanced, healthy way most of the time. So many of my clients have “shoulds” that get in the way of really tuning into what feels best in their bodies. Sometimes the foods that they say they “shouldn’t” eat become more attractive just by virtue of them being forbidden.  

That’s why I am consistently bothered by the flurry of conflicting nutritional advice on the internet. How can someone who doesn’t know my body and lifestyle tell me how to eat? Personally, I learned over many years the kinds of meals and snacks that “work” for me. And, in the process, I maintained enough flexibility so that I could enjoy so many different kinds of foods in different settings. Every once in awhile, I discover something that doesn’t feel good in my body. I had some hot peppered oil recently that didn’t sit well with me (though my go-to ginger remedy made my stomach feel better). I now know that if I go to that restaurant again, I’ll go lighter on the hot pepper. I learned from my body experience, albeit a dramatic example. If I trust the latest advice from a nutritional-guru on the internet, I bypass the wisdom that my own body affords me every time I eat and pay attention. I set up a “should eat” situation (that the rebellious part of me might want to rebel against) and take the decision about what to eat away from my own values and preferences regarding food. The eating experience is bound to be less satisfying when I apply “shoulds” than if I am making choices from my own wisdom and self-care.

Another long-term client I saw today has been working hard on finding gray areas in her life. She has operated from all-or-nothing, black-or-white in so many ways. Today she talked about an instance where she found the gray in regards to house-cleaning. Bear with me, as it’s a strange example, but it really works. I promise.

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Long ago, my client read in a housekeeping magazine that she was supposed to wash her bathroom floors weekly. She has had that task on her (immense) to-do list for a long time, but realized that it was often not getting done. And she was really beating herself up about it, particularly when time would go by and she really didn’t like the way the floors looked. It was black-or-white thinking that kept her stuck. She either had to clean the floors perfectly, moving all the furnishings and making them gleam — or she let it go and had to live with floors that were messier than she liked. It never occurred to her — until last week — that she could spot-clean the floors in between. Instead of weekly thorough cleaning, she could clean the floors really well monthly, and then spot-clean (picking up the hair and other things that collect on the bathroom floor without the whole furnishing-moving procedure) in between.

So what does this have to do with food? I think it parallels some of her (and many of our) struggles with food. My client also goes back and forth between eating “perfectly” and “cleanly” — following all of the rules of the blogs and websites that she follows — or she rebels against the “shoulds” and starts eating, in her words, like crap. She knew that neither really felt good, although the “cleaner” eating had the illusion of feeling great at first; it was just not sustainable. So, we had a good laugh today when we considered that she could “spot-clean” her eating, too. Just like the spot-cleaning of her bathroom made her squirm at first (imagining all those germs and gross things under her appliances), eating in this more middle way is hard to get used to. But, just like the spot-cleaning of her house gave her more freedom and rest to pursue other passions, the spot-clean eating (versus the perfect and unsustainable clean eating) really sets her free and shifts her challenging relationship with food. Instead of eating a large plate of just vegetables or a box of plain buttered pasta (one virtuous, in her mind, and one not), she can combine the vegetables and noodles and make a middle-of-the-extremes dish that feels good in her body.

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So, the next time you are out and about and you don’t know if the yummy dish your friends are serving you is as “clean” as the version that you eat at home… Don’t panic, don’t starve, don’t ruminate over the ingredients! Make an informed choice whether to eat it or not, based on your own knowledge of what feels good in your body and your own values. When you find yourself being “good” and “bad” interchangeably with food, give up the struggle and stop judging yourself and your eating. I propose Spot-Clean eating versus Clean Eating, which allows flexibility, pleasure, ease, and space for the rest of the joys of living.

Care of the Athlete (and the Self) Creates a Winning Team

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The recent Winter Olympics buzz inspired me to write about something that troubles me about athletics and sports today: the focus on winning and being there for the team at the expense of the individual athlete. Even in individual athletic pursuits, there is often a focus on competition. The outcome becomes more important than the process. While setting goals can be motivating, I also wonder if so many people lose the joy of moving the body by focusing on the finish and not on the race.

I work with many athletes and former athletes in my nutrition therapy practice. It’s astounding how many of them have challenging relationships with food. You would think that athletes, whose bodies are their instruments, would have increased reverence for food as their fuel. Many of them do, but I am always amazed at just how many also have a lot of conflict and struggle around food.

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Athletic people should ideally be the most in-tune with their bodies. Their bodies are highly capable, and sometimes they depend on these well-trained bodies for a major part of their livelihood. But, more often than I’d like to see, athletes can become quite disconnected from their bodies. They often ignore pain, strain, and fatigue because they don’t want to let the team down. The focus is on winning or finishing or getting the best time or lifting more than they did yesterday... And if a coach has told them that they need to stay thin or lose weight to be top at their sport, then they often engage in dieting behaviors — and sometimes even develop eating disorders — in an attempt to perform their best. Ironically, the dieting and disordered eating often shortens their career or leads to debilitating injuries that last for decades. Some athletes, like football players, are even encouraged to overeat, which can have a lasting impact on their relationship to food and later health.

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It made me think about the way in which all of us “perform” in our lives. Do we operate from our own desires, dreams, appetites — or are we trying to please our “coaches” or “teams?” Are we enjoying the moments of our lives — or are we chasing some goal, some “should” that keeps getting bigger and bigger the more we practice?

Let’s think about this…

  • When you exercise, are you doing it because it makes you feel great and it’s loads of fun — or are you trying to look a certain way for a certain someone or have a certain image? Do you listen to your body when it says it’s time to rest, or do you have a set amount of exercise that you must do in order to feel good about your workouts?
  • When you make a choice about what to eat, do you choose from what you really want to eat and what you know feels best for your body and palate — or do you eat what you think you should, based on someone else's assessment of what is best for you?
  • Are you living your life on your terms, making your own choices? Do you consult with your “team” of loved ones or advice-givers around you, considering their needs and ideas along with your own — or do you give up your own needs for the team, doing what you think you should do?
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My last blog post was a reprint of Sondra Kronberg’s article about eating disorders recovery called “Listening Inward.” She wrote about the importance of operating from a frame of reference that is inside ourselves, honoring our own truths and hungers and preferences instead of those of the people around us. If an athlete is doing that, she is more likely to notice that twinge in her knee and stop, instead of pushing on through pain and hurting herself. If a coworker recognizes that her body wants warm, grounding food and choses the hearty soup, she will feel centered and soothed all afternoon — instead of grabbing the salad, like everyone else around her and feeling hungry, distracted, and unsatisfied afterwards. If we all listen to our hearts and work to create a life that holds meaning and enjoyment for us, then we can say “no” to the things that don’t resonate with the life that we want. We can also say “yes” to the things and people that line up with our values and dreams.

Maybe you didn’t beat your best time, but you ran the race with your friends beside you for a good cause. Maybe you didn’t win the game, but you took many wonderful deep breaths under a clear blue sky. Maybe you didn’t lift as much weight or swim as many laps as you did when you used to go to the gym regularly, but you recommitted to your health and well-being by starting to exercise again. Maybe you didn’t dance as long or as hard as the people around you, but you shook your thang and you loved it.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Enjoy moving — even if you don’t win the gold medal. Enjoy eating — even if you didn’t create the perfect meal. Listen to your body and its wisdom before you jump on the next diet and nutrition fad. In my experience, healing our relationships with food is comprised of the slow, hard work of changing habits and thought patterns, and no quick-fix nutrition solution will do it. Trust yourself above all else. Don’t forget yourself, when trying to be part of a community, family, or workplace. Feed yourself well so that you can move through life the way you want to: with strength, courage, and not overly influenced by your “team.” Life can be a challenging journey. Appreciate your growth, your unique gifts, and the way that taking good care of yourself helps you move through your unique life with grace. You will truly be a better “team player” if you are taking good care of your Self first.

Listening Inward

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This article, reprinted with permission from the author, appears in the 2014 Gurze Salucore Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue. The writer is my colleague, Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN, CEDRD, who can be found at http://www.sondrakronberg.com/


Eating disorders develop and are perpetuated by the loss of trust in your inner voice and bodily messages. Instead, you come to rely on external cues, rules, beliefs, and rituals to regulate how you feel, what you allow yourself to do, and how you relate to your food, weight, body, and other people. It is this separation from one’s inner self and the increasing reliance on outside information, judgments, or beliefs that cements eating disordered behaviors in place. The greater the gap between what you do, think, and say on the outside and how you really feel, who you truly are on the inside, your authentic self — the greater the need for the eating disorder to fill the void, anesthetize the pain, or suppress uncomfortable feelings.

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Recovery is about tuning inward. It is about reclaiming your authentic self from your eating disorder and learning to listen to your internal messages. It is about taking the focus off what the outside world is saying and tuning in to what your inner self and your body are telling you. Recovery and healing result from listening inward. In order to progress, you must develop skills for listening inward, as well as skills for tuning out the external messages of the media, friends, parents, and society. Healing occurs through the process of learning to listen to your own physical, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual needs. Reclaiming yourself requires learning to listen, hear, and embrace your own hunger for food, love, acceptance, health, connection, pleasure, community, and peace of mind.

How can you learn to be a better listener? Listening is best facilitated by asking questions and waiting for the answers from within you, from your internal voice, your inner guide, or your true self. Learning to ask questions of yourself and to listen for the answers from within will help you get back to being the expert on you. It is a vehicle for developing trust in yourself and creating confidence in your life. Listening to the answers from within that get you in touch with your physical hunger will help you ask questions and listen to the answers that get you in touch with your emotional and spiritual hungers as well. Recognizing and learning to trust your physical cues will help you learn to recognize and trust your emotional cues. Asking questions that identify what foods you are hungry for will help you ask questions that identify where else in your life you are hungry or feeling less than satisfied. Tuning inward to determine what you want at a meal will ultimately help you determine what you want in life. Identifying and being able to ask for what you require to meet your emotional, physical, and spiritual needs will foster your growth. I encourage my patients to practice this in all areas of their lives—with their foods, in their therapy, at their jobs, and in their relationships. Asking questions of yourself will increase awareness and assist you in developing the skill of listening to answers.

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This is a complex skill since our body speaks to us in so many ways. Our body speaks to us through all our senses, our heart, our mind, our feelings, our muscles, our conscious and unconscious thoughts, our energy, our posture, our actions, our hunger, and our fears. To hear it may mean letting go of many past beliefs, rules, and external ways of feeling secure or in control. Developing the skill of listening inward will definitely require persistence, patience, and compassion to break through your old patterns.

Meeting your physical needs develops parallel skills you will use for meeting your emotional needs. Listening to and trusting what your body is telling you physically is paramount to learning to trust your feelings and, ultimately, yourself.

Contrary to the belief of most people with eating disorders, our feelings and our bodies are not the enemy. In fact, quite the opposite is true. If we allow ourselves to align with and listen to our feelings and our bodies, we can use them as our guides. If we listen and attune to our bodies and our feelings, they can help us make decisions that support our growth. They can be our antennae, moving us away from that which causes pain, harm, and disconnection in our lives and toward people, places, and opportunities that meet our innermost needs.

As always, go slowly. Practice using this tool with patience and compassion. Successful change is a slow process.

by Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN, CEDRD

Self-Care in a Selfie-Absorbed World

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That wasn’t a typo. I wrote selfie-absorbed because it seems that, as a culture, we are all so focused on our images. Wikipedia defines the selfie as “a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone.” Time magazine wrote that the selfie was among its "top 10 buzzwords" of 2012. In November 2013, the word selfie was announced as being the "word of the year" by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today’s blog post is not a sociological look at why we love to take pictures of ourselves and post them on Facebook. But it struck me today that so many of us find taking good care of ourselves challenging. In this world where information and communication happen at lightning speed, our brief screen images often seem more important than how we are really feeling.

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As a nutrition therapist who treats many clients with disordered and emotional eating, I’m frequently encouraging good self-care: eating well, sleeping well, moving the body in ways that feel good without overdoing it, etc… I’d be dishonest, though, if I said that I never have trouble with self-care myself. I have worked on my relationship with food and I’m two decades recovered from my own eating disorder, but I still occasionally find myself eating in front of the computer to save time or eating on the fly in the car. I know that giving myself good, nurturing, focused experiences with food feels better physically and emotionally, but I don’t always do it. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice because I have a deadline that feels more important in the moment, but sometimes I’m putting my own needs too low on the to-do list. When I don’t really taste my food because my mind is on something else, I might feel disappointed. I might find myself distracted and foraging for a snack later, even if I’m not hungry. Taking the time to honor my need for food, and the sensory enjoyment that an eating break provides, makes me feel like a more grounded, giving, and less distracted clinician/parent/partner/friend. When our cup is filled, we tend to be better equipped to help others in need.

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Sleep is another self-care item that so many of us struggle with. Just one more email, just one more chore, just one more sweet conversation with a friend or partner… And before we know it, we’ve squeezed our required seven hours of sleep (or however many you need to feel your best) out of the picture. The instant gratification of getting things done or connecting with a friend might have been wonderful, but we didn’t take the long view. How much can we really get accomplished the next day? How grumpy will we be with the people that we encounter as we get more and more tired over the week? I also find that when I “binge” on sleep after a week where I haven’t quite had enough, I feel groggy and worse after over-sleeping. It didn’t really produce the effect that consistent good sleep would have to begin with.

We do this failing-to-consider-the-long-view dance with food, of course. That [insert comfort food here] might have felt really good to eat. After all, you’re entitled to eat whatever you want, right, especially after all the work you’ve done to be “good” today? In the short view, that comfort eating might have felt great. In the long view, you may have felt overfull and groggy all afternoon. If you’ve struggled with disordered eating and self-judgement, you may have also felt bad about yourself for eating what you know doesn’t make you feel good.

One of my clients today said that her eating disorder and constant focus on food makes her feel like she is only living a “half life.” She’s so focused on what she is and isn’t eating and working her life around her eating disorder, that she finds it hard to be in touch with what she really wants to do. She goes back and forth between being overly accommodating of others and hoarding time and food and space to herself. She is working on a more balanced stance where she is able to take care of herself and, in doing so, has the space and energy to be generous and open and clear with others.

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Isn’t that what we are all working on as we try to negotiate our needs and others’ needs? It’s no mistake that this gets played out with food. We sometimes just can’t find that middle ground. We go back and forth between restricting or eating pristinely (and feeling virtuous about it) and binging or eating beyond our needs because, damn it, we just deserve a cupcake. Note, that I have nothing against cupcakes (love them), but we often use these rewarding-types of foods as a way to make up for the fact that we haven’t done much of anything for ourselves all day. In this case, a cupcake is our only self-care. But is that what we are really craving? Would we rather have a moment to leave work and walk around the block, clearing our heads? Would we rather have a hug after a long day, but we’re too afraid to ask for it for fear of rejection? Would we rather spend a bit of quiet time being reflective and compassionate toward ourselves or in some rejuvenating spiritual or physical practice? Would we rather connect with a human being instead of a computer screen full of selfies?

I still have to remind myself to practice what I preach to my clients regularly: we become more giving when we first give to ourselves. (In fact, us helping/healer types are particularly good at forgetting self-care at times.) When we nourish ourselves with good food, sleep, down-time, connection with people who energize us and don’t deplete us, and generally value and honor our own needs, we become more capable of living the lives that we are meant to lead. We naturally give more to the world and the people around us.

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How do I start to do this when I have believed all my life that my needs aren’t important? How do I fit self-care in with all the obligations and priorities and to-do list items…?

One bite at a time.
One hour of sleep at a time.
One breath at a time.
One dishwashing dance party at a time.

It’s better to commit to eating one mindful, slow meal than to expect your eating style to change overnight. It’s better to do five minutes of meditation in the morning, if that’s all you have time for, then to leave it out when you know that it centers you and helps you through your day. It’s great to commit to getting a little more sleep than usual and work slowly up to the amount that your body lets you know it needs. It’s better to move a little — and just commit to it — than to say that you are going to go to the gym five days a week (and beat yourself up if you can only make it twice). All that energy that goes towards not feeling “good enough” is energy that you could be putting out into the world, doing the great things that only you can contribute. We each have our own unique gifts, but we often get in our own way and fail to let our lights shine.

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Today, make a commitment to yourself and your very own needs for self-care. Make a small but (this is important) do-able decision to change something about the way you live your days, be it about eating, movement, sleep, or other self-care. Try that small change out and get that new habit nicely locked in before you try something else. Be patient with yourself; change is hard and there is often resistance. Look that resistance in the face and keep trying. One healthy, self-caring habit carried out often makes the next one a little easier. Self-care, like self-neglect, is contagious and grows. If you find that negative, self-loathing feelings get in the way of change, get some help from a therapist or therapy group. Sometimes working with people who can give you some of the unconditional compassion that you need (but find hard to give yourself) is helpful and healing.

Remember that you are a whole being and not just your screen image. What will you do today to take better care of yourself — and, therefore, your world, as the self-care extends out in ripples of giving to those around you…?

(Feel free to comment below and share your own thoughts and journey… We are all in this together.)

Why Stress Can Make You Gain Weight Faster Than Grandma’s Cheesecake

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You may be wondering why I’m writing about the “w” word at all. Many of my clients and blog readers know that in my work I de-emphasize the focus on weight, aiming instead to help clients find a more balanced, healthy relationship with food — no matter one’s size or shape. I believe in eliminating the struggle around food and weight, so that one’s body settles into the healthiest place it can.

That said, many of my clients want to lose weight (and you may want to as well, which could be why my catchy title drew you in). There is no denying that the desire to lose weight and be thinner often drives problematic eating behaviors. If you fear weight gain, you may not feed yourself well all day, only to find yourself binging at night. If you want to be thinner, you may make food choices that are about calories and not about your own body’s wisdom about what to eat in that moment. Then you feel unsatisfied, and find yourself looking for the cookies. So, by focusing on weight loss — instead of balance, health, and nourishment — when you eat, you may promote the very relationship with food that you don’t want to have. Ironically, trying to lose weight can keep you stuck in a struggle with food and weight.

There are many ways in which body weight is not determined by how much food we eat. Some of the ways that I won’t address in today’s blog post include metabolism differences, heredity, hormones, and even something that I just learned more about recently: epigenetics. The short story on epigenetics in this context is this: the way your parents and grandparents ate when you were being conceived may have an effect on your body weight.  Most interestingly, a study of Dutch famine victims showed that parents who conceived children during the famine went on to have children who were significantly higher weight. It’s as if these children entered the world as caloric-energy-conservers, ready for famine, but then they grew up in a world where food was abundantly available and couldn’t adjust. Fascinating… and yet another reason not to diet during pregnancy!

Today’s blog post will focus on one of these non-food reasons behind weight gain: stress. No, this is not an article on how to “meditate yourself thin.”  I still believe that putting too much attention on weight loss is counterproductive to healing from emotional or disordered eating. But understanding the way that stress can effect weight may ease any blame that you place on yourself about where your body is at — and further encourage you to find ways to ease the stress in your life.

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It’s no surprise that stress might have a role in weight gain. I know that when I have a particularly stressful week, I feel heavier in my body — literally weighed down by the burden of whatever is on my mind. But aside from that general feeling of burden, stress can actually effect our hormonal system in a way that encourages appetite and weight gain. Here’s how…

Your day at work feels pressured or your children are pushing every limit all day (or both). Your professor just assigned another paper and you have two due already that same week. Your partner just got laid off, at just the time a major bill is due. Stress comes in many different forms. And it can also come to us via the internet and TV, as so many of the stories in the news are bleak. Acute stress can initially decrease one’s appetite, and this is an adaptive response that primes us for “fight or flight.” When running from a saber-toothed tiger, it wasn’t such a good idea for our ancestors to stop for a snack. We all know, however, that stressors more chronic than hungry tigers can often lead us to eat as a way to soothe ourselves, escape our minds for a moment, or make us feel better in the way that only chocolate can. On top of this emotionally-driven increase in eating that some of us have in response to stress, there is a very real hormonal shift that happens in the body which encourages us to keep eating.

Here’s how it works. The hormones that are released when we are feeling stressed include adrenalin, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. High levels of adrenalin and CRH actually decrease appetite at first, as in the saber-toothed tiger example above, though the effects are not lasting. Cortisol, however, remains elevated in the body long after the initial stress response passes. Elevated cortisol over the long-term leads to increased blood sugar levels. Consistently high blood sugar levels, along with insulin suppression when the pancreas struggles to keep up with these levels, lead to cells that are starved of glucose. Those cells are crying out for energy, and one way the body regulates this is to send hunger signals to the brain. Cortisol is a hormone designed to help you replenish your body after a stressful event has passed, increasing your appetite and driving you to eat more.

Again, this works nicely in the case of saber-toothed tigers. Once we run away and the coast is clear, it’s a good idea to nourish ourselves after all that fighting or flighting. But this doesn’t really make sense when the tiger is the daily work grind, our partners’ messy habits, or Fox News. Typically we respond to stress today not by fighting or flighting (and expending lots of physical energy doing so); we respond by slumping down on the couch, stewing in our anger or frustration, and getting lost in a sports game or Facebook with a large bag of potato chips or some other soothing snack.

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We are also much more likely to crave sugar and carbohydrates when we are stressed, as cortisol levels are elevated. If you are stressed and your body feels soothed and comforted by eating these foods, then you learn something about how to feel better the next time you are stressed. The behavioral pattern becomes established.

Some studies have even shown that stress and elevated cortisol not only increase weight gain, but they specifically tend to cause weight gain in the abdominal area. This makes sense, given that cortisol has a role in fat cell maturity and triglyceride mobilization. If you are in a high-stress, unstable environment, it might make sense to have more “survival fat” around. In this day and age, though, high-stress is less about survival and more about lives that are just too full or pressured.

And never mind that your day was so stressful that there was no time for lunch. Add a day of spotty eating to the mix and you have a recipe for emotional and compulsive eating in the evening.

Oh, and did I mention that chronic cortisol secretion in the body can constrict blood vessels, increase blood pressure, contribute to gastrointestinal problems, compromise the immune system, and contribute to fertility problems? Yes, all this, and weight gain, too. That’s enough to make me drop my laptop and just say “Ommmm……”

Whether or not your urge to eat in order to manage stress is all about hormones or habit (or a little of both), there are things that you can do to disrupt the cycle of stress, cortisol, and weight gain. Here goes…

Don’t Skip Meals or Go Too Long Without Eating. Starting the day with breakfast and eating regularly throughout the day will keep blood sugar levels steady and lower insulin production. This eventually reduces cortisol levels.

Move your Body.  The endorphins released by physical activity counteract stress and allow a release of some of that fight-or-flight energy. My most anxious, stressed-out clients literally depend on some type of regular movement or exercise practice to help them manage life. Please note that exercising too hard for too long actually is counter-productive! It can raise cortisol-levels and increase stress. Listen to your body and recognize when you are feeling more worn out by your activities. (Injuries, loss of focus after exercise, and needing extra sleep are some indicators.) I often wonder if that’s the force at work when my clients exercise to exhaustion, seem to eat reasonably well, but find that they are actually gaining weight. Find an activity that you enjoy. Twenty minutes of walking or yoga counts. When you exercise an appropriate amount, your body releases biochemicals that counter the negative effects of stress hormones and control insulin and blood sugar levels.

Eat a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet. Stress has been shown to deplete the body of certain vitamins and minerals, particularly B complex, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. These are important nutrients that balance the effects of cortisol on the body. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as foods rich in protein.

Sleep Well. When we don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels rise significantly, which can make us feel more hungry all the time. Good sleep also makes it easier for us to avoid a lot of caffeine to keep us going, another way to keep the cortisol/stress cycle at bay.

Decrease Caffeine and Alcohol. Caffeinated coffee and tea, and even chocolate, can cause cortisol levels to rise, blood sugar to drop, and hunger to increase. Regular drinking of alcoholic beverages can negatively affect blood sugar and insulin levels.

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Practice Relaxation. I say practice because many of us have lost the skill of truly relaxing and need to work on it regularly. We might think that football game is helping us chill out, but the stimulation of the action and the advertising is actually not calming to our nervous systems. True relaxation, in whatever form works for you, produces brain chemicals that counter the effects of stress on the body. Experiment and find out what calms you. Some like putting their attention on the natural flow of their breath, which is always available. Others find meditation, yoga, taking a bath, listening to peaceful music, getting out for a walk in fresh air, or curling up with a good book or a cuddly pet relaxing.

Stress is not inherently bad. It helps us get things done. It creates heroes. But if we feel the effects of stress constantly, especially if we already tend to be a Type A, then it can harm our health and well-being. It weighs us down and keeps us from feeling focused, centered, and present in our lives. As I’ve said so many times before, research shows that weight-loss diets don’t work to sustain a long-term healthy weight. But also consider the impact that stress might be having on your body and your overall health — and try on a little Type B for a change. On the path to self- and body-love and good health, finding healthy ways to manage stress is more important than we may think.


Resolutions Schmesolutions!

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Have your New Year’s Resolutions started to go south yet…? I’ve noticed that it’s kind of trendy this year to not create resolutions. Like it or not, though, there is an energy of change and renewal that comes with January. It’s hard to deny. So we ride it, and think about breathing out the things that we’d rather leave in 2013 and breathing in the new…

So many of us set New Year’s resolutions or goals about weight loss or change in diet or exercise. I know this because clients have told me that the gyms are packed and the weight-loss commercials have increased. It’s a January phenomenon. Then, by March (if not before), the gyms are less crowded and many resolutions are forgotten. We sort of forget about them until next January. This can leave us feeling rather demoralized and ashamed, as if we have somehow failed or don’t have enough willpower or strength.

As a nutrition therapist, my work is all about assisting in behavior change. My clients want to eat more wisely, or move more freely and confidently in their bodies, or discover the freedom that life without disordered eating can bring. I believe in setting goals (realistic ones) and being patient with and honoring the process to get there. So, how can we look at those new year’s wishes in a new light so that we don’t run out of steam by March…?

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First, I propose New Year’s Explorations (instead of resolutions). Yes, we want to eat healthfully, in a way that makes us feel vital and energized, but how to we get to that place? Over the last 16 years that I have been doing this work, I have discovered that the majority of my clients actually know how to eat well. I don’t mean perfectly, as I don’t believe there really is one perfect way to eat. In fact, our bodies are all so different — and people all over the world live and thrive on so many different kinds of diets —  that I just don’t believe that our food choices deserve the scrutiny and obsessiveness that we have developed here in the U.S. With practice, I have seen many people figure out the way of eating that best suits their lifestyle and values. But what if you know the way that you want to eat, and you already know a lot about nutrition, but you just can’t stop eating patterns that sabotage this? For example, you want a diet that is balanced and moderate when it comes to sweets, but you find yourself binging on the foods that you are trying to moderate. Or maybe you don't want to be obsessed with what you eat, but you are so afraid of eating too many carbohydrates or calories that you find yourself restricting your food and feeling famished and focused on food all day.

We often use food — either over- or under-eating — as a way to deal with (or not deal with) challenging feelings or thoughts. Eventually, it can just become a habit. Compulsive overeating is something almost all of us do at times (particularly around the holidays) and is sometimes a way of self-soothing when our physical and emotional needs aren’t being met. Find yourself eating those holiday cookies in order to keep yourself awake to wrap gifts — or during holiday obligations that weren’t all that fun? Maybe you really wanted sleep or different company, but you treated yourself to food instead. You took care of the part of you that enjoys yumminess in your mouth, but not the other part of you that needed sleep or connection.

A client I met with this morning had the wonderful experience of being at a social gathering with friends that felt so nourishing. She was so “fed” by the company and the activity of the evening that she really had little interest in all the wonderful food that was present. She ate when she needed to, but she mostly had little interest in eating as her spirits were being nourished elsewhere. Another client today talked about the way in which she could be more flexible with her food choices, allowing herself to eat in a less rigid way, if only other parts of her life felt more fulfilling. Her elaborate food preparation rituals and the pleasure that she takes in eating her highly-planned meals is “all I’ve got” for self-care and pleasure in the day. She was able to imagine, though, that she could think about food a lot less and eat a quicker, less time-consuming meal if she had other pursuits in her day that were engaging her passions. She is trapped by her disordered eating, but her disordered eating also takes so much time that she has little space to think about how she might go about cultivating more of what she really wants in her life.

In the Non-Diet Book Club this morning, we also talked about the ways that we can be so afraid in our culture to sit still and ask ourselves what really fills us up. What nourishes our hearts and souls? We compulsively eat, drink, shop, exercise, text, clean, play games. We are — all of us, and I am far from perfect here — sometimes afraid to just sit still and simply be. We don’t often check in with our hearts. We are sometimes afraid of what we might find. We are afraid that we don’t know what our heart’s desire really is. Or if we do know what it is, we don’t know the first thing about connecting to it or bringing it into our lives. So many clients say that it’s so much easier to just keep [insert food behavior, whether it be binging, restricting, or eating carelessly] than to change and do something else, even if that something else might be good for them. Some of us are so conditioned to feel lousy, criticize ourselves, and live in our heads instead of our hearts, that it is hard to imagine operating otherwise. Change is hard. We need support and strength in order to do things differently.

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I know that clients are moving towards full recovery from disordered eating (no matter their path to get there) when they begin to truly cultivate the things in their life that help them to feel connected to themselves — and their unique values and purpose. Do you feel that groundedness and that sense that all is well in the world when you do something that you are passionate about? Doesn’t your life just flow better when you are feeding your spirit and senses — and when you find moments of being in the present? It can be simply spending time in nature or with a trusted friend or meditating or being lost in a project that you are passionate about. Not thinking endlessly about things that already happened or worrying about things in the future that are beyond our control, but just being in the present. Doesn’t life just flow better for you? Do you feel a little relief from that thinking, analyzing part of your brain? Do you not even think about food then, at least until your body gives you the clear signal that it’s time to refuel? Some of us find these moments of just being present more easily than others. Be patient with your very own journey.  

In 2014, I wish more of those moments of presence and deep heartfulness for you. And how do we all get there? Not by making resolutions, but by making explorations and finding out — in the quiet space that you give yourself — what it is that really “feeds” you. When you spend more time nourishing your spirit and soul, the power that food has over you becomes weaker -- and you are able to use your psychotherapy, nutrition therapy, and individual soul work more effectively.

Ask yourself these two big questions in 2014:

  • What fills ME up? What nourishes my soul and spirit and keeps me grounded in the present?

Some examples from my clients this week: listening to music, praying or meditating, walking in nature, taking care of someone that you love or your home, hanging out with a friend, playing with a pet. In fact, animals are particularly helpful for keeping us in the present. They don’t know any better.

  • What form of movement nourishes and feels good to my body and soul? Do I like to move my body alone or with others? Does vigorous or more gentle movement really ground me?
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I don’t know about you, but the right music can transform dish-washing into a satisfying dance party in my kitchen. Movement comes in all shapes and sizes. Think outside the gym.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat or exercise differently in the new year and setting goals to do so. But don’t forget that the reason that you might be overindulging in food, drink, or sedentary living just might be that you are starving for what matters most to you and trying to fill up or reward yourself with something else. Explore this in the new year… Check in with yourself (or, if you are a planner, your calendar) every month this year. Are you filling your life with the things that matter most? If not, make appointments with yourself to do so. Build that nourishment right into your life the way that you schedule all your other priorities. (Most busy people have to do this.)

Explore and discover what makes you feel happy, present, and full this year. You may find that eating becomes less of a battle and big deal when your soul is being adequately fed. And the really cool thing about the eating binge or the exercise resistance creeping back in here and there… Well, I recommend trying to dispense with the self-criticism and recognize this as a sign that your soul and spirit needs more nourishment. Don’t be afraid to sit quietly and ask your heart what it really needs if you find yourself hanging out with food you don’t want to eat. Be gentle with yourself and explore what you hunger for in 2014.

Peaceful and Joyful Holiday Eating...?

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As my gift to you this holiday season, I am reprinting the Intuitive Eater’s Holiday Bill of Rights, written by Evelyn Tribole and the Intuitive Eating Professionals Group -- with a few of my own personal nuggets added at the end, inspired by work with clients.

It’s hard to enjoy the blessings of the season when you are preoccupied with what to eat or worried about what to say to relatives or friends who have expectations about how much or how little you should eat at holiday gatherings. Consider this Bill of Rights to help encourage more peace with food and your body during the holidays...

  1. You have the right to savor your meal, without cajoling or judgment, and without discussion of calories eaten or the amount of exercise needed to burn off said calories.
  2. You have the right to enjoy second servings without apology.
  3. You have the right to honor your fullness, even if that means saying “no thank you” to dessert or to a second helping of food.
  4. It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a special holiday dish.
  5. You have the right to say, “No thank you,” without explanation, when offered more food.
  6. You have the right to stick to your original answer of “no,” even if you are asked multiple times. Just calmly and politely repeat, “No, thank you, really.”
  7. You have the right to eat pumpkin pie for breakfast.
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Only you are the expert of your own body, which requires tuning in to your own sensations of hunger and fullness, as well as your true food preferences. It’s harder to listen when so much food and outside influences are present. It requires slowing down, something we often don’t do well at this time of year.

I would also like to add a few items of my own to the Bill of Rights. My clients inspired me to add to the items above...

  1. You have the right to make a choice to eat beyond comfortable fullness if a special dish comes only once a year. (Just, please, don’t beat yourself up about making this choice!)
  2. You have the right to leave the room (or ask for the subject to be changed) when friends or family members talk about dieting, weight loss, or food constantly or obsessively.
  3. You have the right to make resolutions, goals, or intentions for the new year that support your values and dreams and whole being -- instead of focusing on just your body.
  4. You have the right to say “no, thank you” to social and other holiday obligations or customs that don’t speak to your own values and desires -- and to try to include some new traditions or activities that nourish your unique soul during this darker time of year.

I wish you many blessings and much peace during this holiday season and in the year to come. Thank you so much for reading and sharing this blog over the past year. 

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(In case you've come to the blog late and have been wondering, the sweet creatures you've been seeing embedded in my posts are Bud-Bud and Boo, my daughters' guinea pigs and beloved family pets. They always seem to be doing things that resonate with my writing. They appreciate that you are furthering their modeling careers and they wish you a very happy new year, too!)

Don't Weigh Your Self-Worth With a Scale

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A client of mine wrote this honest account of her troubled relationship with the scale. I asked her permission to post it here because I thought that so many people struggling with food and weight might relate to her writing. I couldn’t have written it better myself, and I’m grateful for the insights that I can share here with you...

Goodbye Scale

He was a numbers man, cold and objectifying, but I craved his contact and approval.  It was a dysfunctional relationship, but he was hard to resist.  

He was dominant and I submissive in our perverse relationship.  I never considered it a choice; I just had to see him.  I thought I'd die without him.  I was somewhat dissociative when we shared intimacy at least once but sometimes multiple times a day in various spots on the floor outside my room.  It was best on the wood that had a certain grain, never on the rug or in front of anyone.  I was ashamed of my despair, which I hid in the back of my eyes, forcing the tears away.  I didn't want anyone to see or even know what I was up to.  

Enough of this.  He's had free reign over me forever.  He was there in my parents’ home -- actually in their room -- and in my various apartments later on.  I guess it was my fault, because I would seek him out and want his advice, but he always made me so sad, like a victim -- not who I want to be, now or ever.   I'm standing up, finally.  I want to scream, "I want my body back!  You can't tell me how to feel.  Get out of my life!  I can and will live better without you and will never judge myself by your number again."

I no longer could stand the anguish, waking to his shiny face and knowing he had the power to dictate my mood.  What a pain he would give me, and I would take it out on myself, feeling "less than" and hopeless many days.  It would take a lot to undo this feeling, but it nagged at me all the time.   His approval also could send me into a tailspin, not knowing how to keep this going, especially because I wasn't really sure what I did to get it right one day but not the next. I wanted to beg him, "Please make this easy and tell me what I did and how to do it again."  But, no, the great manipulator only gave random praise.   And I was addicted.  There was a time when I thought I had the perfect solution and one which no one would know: I could starve myself or binge and purge to get his praise.  I have given up on that tactic, but need to take this next giant step: get rid of him and regain my life.  

With lots of help, I came to my senses and broke up with him this morning. He's down in the dusty basement right now, probably in shock and wondering what he did to deserve this.   But I had no choice; it’s as simple as that.  I forced him into a tomb-like place, similar to the world I needed to escape.  Now he's the one living in a box, one more skeleton out of my closet.  I cannot let him or anyone hurt me again.   I want my body back!!  I need to stand up; life is waiting!   I don't want to waste any more time.  So, I'm moving on, and I can't and won't take him with me this time.  I'm excited to feel the joy of movement again, and I rejoice in what my limbs and muscles can do.  Here's to swimming, dancing, stretching, walking, and playing again!

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I love the words of my client above because they so capture the lure of the scale and the way that a strong relationship with it can undermine one’s trust in the body and self. If you step on a scale first thing in the morning, you may feel happy or dejected depending on what the number is today. You may use the scale as the reason to eat or not eat -- or to eat certain things over others. It’s hard to listen to the body’s wisdom about what to eat when the scale is deciding for you. It’s hard to listen to your hunger or fullness and pay attention to what you really want when that number is calling the shots.

Let’s say your weight is up a couple of pounds today. This could be related to hydration, water retention, and/or the presence of food in the stomach or intestines -- as compared to the last time your weight was checked. Those of you who check your weight frequently know that weight is lowest in the morning and increases naturally over the course of the day. You also may know that it fluctuates -- going up or down in a way that sometimes doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason when you compare it to your eating patterns.

Many of my clients are simply astounded by the sense of freedom that ditching the scale provides. Some of them smash it, throw it out high windows, or hide it in my office closet until they feel really able to let it go. I’ve donated scales to the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association so that they can use them for art therapy projects in their groups. The group members collage affirming, positive words and photos all over them. (You can try this at home.) Losing the scale makes most people feel, not ironically, like a tremendous weight has been lifted. And it is a major stepping stone in the process of trusting oneself to make food decisions based on self-care and not punishment or restraint.

If your doctor needs to monitor your weight because it is too low, or because you have a thyroid or other condition that effects your weight, then that’s fine. I personally can’t see any other reason to monitor weight outside of a medical visit or check-up. Most people are aware of shifts in their weight without needing a scale to put a number to it. In fact, some people start an exercise program and get discouraged because their weight initially goes up. Muscle weighs more than fat, so working out may make you leaner and healthier without changing weight very much. If you use the scale as your guide when you change your physical activities, you may be underestimating your progress in taking good care of your body.

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If you are having a torrid affair with the scale, think about whether you really need him (or her) in your life. Instead, surround yourself with people and things that feed your senses, affirm your worth as a human being, and encourage you to take good care of yourself. Ditch it once and for all. And if you do, please share your story...

 

 

 

Feeding Yourself (and Your Family) Seasonally and Sanely

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Are you trying to eat mindfully, eat seasonally, and enjoy the pleasures of eating, but you just don’t have a lot of time to be creative in the kitchen? If so, I hear you... I love to cook, but I’m a single working mom and the reality is that I often have a half-hour to prepare dinner for myself and my family. Making nourishing, health-giving meals is important to me, but the realities of life mean that I’m not exactly able to ride the slow food train as much as I’d like to.

Over the years, I’ve collected some ideas for seasonal meals that work in my kitchen and the kitchens of my clients. When I say “seasonal” in November, I’m thinking autumnally, using fall harvest ingredients. Seasonal eating for us here in New England means warming our bodies with soups, stews, squashes, greens, warm grains, root vegetables like carrots and parsnips. Curling up on the couch with a bowl of warm soup and a soft blanket provides a sensory environment that feeds both our bodies and souls during the shorter, darker days of autumn and winter.

I don’t have true recipes to offer you with measurements and clear instructions (sorry to folks who like standard recipes) because I rarely cook with recipes when I’m busy... which is... uh, like, almost always! It’s wonderful to cook and enjoy the process of cooking. That in itself can be an act of mindfully caring for ourselves. But when you have a family to both feed and interact with -- and a small time in which to do that -- keeping it simple leaves room for the meal to be more relaxing, connective, and fun. Even if you are feeding just yourself, keeping food preparation simple and easy may just give you more time to eat slowly -- and to savor the downtime that meals provide with good, health-giving food.

Let’s start by exploring some of my favorite time-saving kitchen devices...

First, the pressure cooker. OMG, I can’t say enough about how I depend on this pot! I think every house should have at least one. In Switzerland, I believe that the average house has three. A pressure cooker allows you to cook brown rice in 20 minutes, white rice in 5 minutes, dried beans/legumes (previously soaked) in 10 minutes, squashes in 10 minutes, potatoes in 15 minutes. Need I say more...? If you want to make a stew, you can place raw ingredients and soup broth into the pot and cut your cooking time down considerably. I can’t say enough about how helpful this pot is. Well worth the expense of a good one that will last...

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Second, the slow cooker. I’m not a crock pot whiz like some of my mama friends. I tend to use this for two things: first, to cook whole chickens -- and then boil down the bones to make soup broth. The bones contain beneficial minerals, and studies have shown that good old-fashioned chicken soup is better for soothing and improving the symptoms of the common cold than any herbal remedy. The second thing I use the slow cooker for is to make oatmeal . Put in one cup of rolled oats (not the quick kind) to 4 cups of water in the evening before you go to bed. Add nuts, fruit (I like chopped apples), flaxseed, and other add-ins at night or in the morning -- depending on what floats your oats -- and you wake up with a warm, delicious breakfast all ready to eat. How wonderful is that?! I also know many busy working parents who toss ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, head out the door, and have a warm home-cooked meal ready when the workday is done. Feel free to share some of your favorite recipes in the comments section below this post...

Now let’s talk about my Easy-To-Make Soup Template. You can make hundreds of different kinds of soup with a fairly simple formula and different ingredients.  If you’ve made some bone broth (see above) or have some prepared broth of any type in your kitchen, you can make a quick, delicious soup in no time. The key is having fresh, colorful ingredients around.

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Start by sauteeing some garlic and onions in a large soup pot with an oil of your choosing (I like olive oil for soup), add chopped carrots, parsnips, and/or celery and sautee further. I’m not going to tell you how much oil or onions or garlic to add, since part of the fun of cooking is figuring out just how much interests you. Depending on how much soup you want to make, dump in some broth and add a protein source to round out the meal: beans/legumes, tofu, pieces of cooked meat (which you have cooked in the slow cooker during the day or another time and have all ready in the fridge). Next, add any seasonal vegetables of your choosing and/or a can of diced tomatoes. I like to keep a bit of cooked squash and potatoes in the fridge so that I can use them during the week quickly. If you want to put uncooked squash or potatoes into your soup, then you will need to cut them up in small cubes and boil them in the soup for a bit. Greens like kale, chard, or collards, however, can be put in for a very short time, just prior to serving your soup. Don’t forget to add fresh or dried herbs and spices to your taste. (I like using curry and ginger and pepper in my soups.) Experiment and find out what works for you.

So many clients say that making soup feels too complicated. Once you try the “formula” above, make a mental note of what you liked and didn’t like about your soup. When you are pressed for time, a vegetable or two and a protein might be enough; when you have more food prep time or you are in the cooking “zone,” play around with different ingredients. Because I never use a recipe, my soups never come out the same twice. That keeps it interesting for my family and me. One of my favorite simple soups involves simply cooking French green lentils with onions, carrots, celery, coconut milk, curry and broth. Yum!

And don’t forget the grounding food with all that protein and vegetable. Serve soups with a cooked grain like rice or quinoa -- or add noodles, pour on top of a baked potato, or serve with a sweet potato or crusty bread. Now you have a yummy, warm, balanced meal. If you have the ingredients on hand, and you get the hang of it, you can make this meal up in about a half-hour.

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And how can I talk about autumn food without mentioning my favorite lesser-known secret about squash? Did you ever look at that big butternut squash and just not have the heart to take an ax to it? Well, you can cook any squash whole! Just poke a few holes in the squash with a sharp knife. Then, bake it whole at 375 degrees for about an hour, depending on the size of the squash. This is actually the best way to maintain all the nutrients in the squash as it cooks. Just cut through the soft cooked squash when it’s done (test it first with a skewer to make sure it’s really soft and cooked) and scoop out the seeds. Voila! Another easy meal can be made by stuffing squashes, once cooked and cut into halves, with whatever you have in your kitchen that can be warmed up and mixed together. Use cooked rice, cooked quinoa, chickpeas, walnuts or pecans, pieces of cooked chicken or turkey, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, or other seasonal vegetables. If you have children, they generally will like eating these “squash boats.” My daughters like getting down to the sweet acorn squash at the bottom of our boats.

I hope this gives you some seasonal inspiration for those short, dark, busy days of autumn and winter. Many of my clients are on the road to recovery from challenges with food. Creating nourishing, delicious meals helps all of us take good care of our bodies and souls. This doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated or fancy. Warmth, seasonal produce, and a little dose of self-love go a very long way...

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Mindful Movement: How to Exercise So That You Never Burn Out or Lose Interest

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 I counsel and write frequently about mindful eating. This week, it struck me that a lot of my clients have been looking for help with exercising mindfully. They don’t call it that, but I hear things like:

“I feel bad if I don’t run six miles; but after I do that, I am completely wiped out and exhausted the rest of the day”

or “I know I should be exercising more, but I feel demoralized going into the gym”

or “I walked three miles today, but that doesn’t feel like enough.”

In each of these cases, my clients want to move, but they are moving according to some prescription that they hold in their heads -- or that was handed to them by another well-meaning health professional or parent or friend. What they aren’t doing is listening to their own bodies’ wisdom about how much activity is enough or right for them.

Let’s take the example of the runner who feels compelled to run so many miles per day, but whose body is not recovering well from it. Marathon runners know that training requires lots of miles, but it also requires lots of calories from food. If you are running your planned number of miles, but feeling more exhausted than energized, then you are probably running more than your own self-care will allow. Are you eating enough food to sustain and support that level of running, particularly if it’s daily? You may be surprised by just how many calories runners need in order to repair all the muscle fibers and tissues that break down and build up with regular running. In fact, if we don’t eat enough calories, we can’t build muscle doing any kind of physical activity. Muscle building is anabolic, which means that it requires extra food above and beyond the food that our bodies need to survive and function well.

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If your body is getting enough food (particularly enough carbohydrates and protein), enough sleep, and you are not training beyond your body’s capacities, you should be able to recover from your physical activity and feel good (albeit a little sore) the next day. If your exercise routine is wiping you out, then it’s time to take a look at your eating and other habits. Maybe your busy lifestyle is tiring enough, and exercising every other day would be more sustainable than daily workouts. Maybe two times per week is really enough for you right now. Just because the Surgeon General makes particular recommendations doesn’t mean that the advice is right for every person under every circumstance. Take a look at what level of exertion and frequency your lifestyle can handle. Try eating more if you feel like you aren’t recovering well between workouts. Many clients are surprised that just adding more food (often carbohydrates) gives them more energy and helps their bodies recover better from physical activity.

High-intensity exercise like running is certainly not for every body. Nor is going to a gym. The person I mentioned above who felt humiliation and shame going to a gym may not be choosing the right form of movement. Often when I interview someone about their exercise habits, I ask them to name ways of moving their body that feel good. If going to the gym and taking the stairs-to-nowhere feels good, so be it. For many, however, gym exercises become boring, repetitive, and something to dread. Often working with a sensitive trainer to mix things up and make movement interesting helps. Finding forms of movement that feel more motivating and fun helps sustain interest. Walking outside -- particularly now while the New England weather is mild and the trees are gorgeous -- will often feed the senses (and fulfill our hunger for nature) much more than staring at a TV in a gym. Clients of mine have discovered dancing, yoga, kayaking, swimming, martial arts, gardening, and other forms of movement that help them feel more connected to their bodies and to the joy of movement. One of my clients recently joined a women’s hockey league and finds it exhilarating and fun; the treadmill wasn’t doing it for her anymore.

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I once had an injury and needed to do some strength training to help me get stronger as my knee and hip healed. I hate traditional strength training, even though I know that it is good for my body. I find it boring and it feels pointless to me in the moment, so I have no interest in sustaining it, even though I want to have a strong, able body as I continue to age. Put me in a kayak or on my bike, but don’t make me lift a dumbbell or ride a bicycle that’s nailed to the ground! During my injury recovery, Peter Benjamin, the practitioner who helped me with my healing, made strength work fun. He taught me exercises that I could do with my daughters around the house, threw heavy balls back and forth with me (playing ball is way more fun than lifting weights!), and generally made the experience of strengthening and healing fun and interactive. I’m so grateful for that experience and for what it taught me about what I personally need in order to keep making movement a joy and a part of my life.

Lastly, I frequently hear clients say that they did some walking, or they worked an 8-hour shift on their feet, or they did some stretching and yoga -- but “it’s not enough.” Enough for whom, I ask? Often my clients have Schwarzenegger-like expectations. Our bodies benefit when we ride our bikes to the store, walk from the subway station to work, wait on tables or patients, and dance around in the yard with a toddler. You might get up from your desk if you sit a lot (set an alert on your computer if you need to) and stretch and move in the way that your body tells you it needs. If you tune in, your body will likely tell you how to move. Find ways to be creative and move spontaneously in your life, so that scheduling exercise doesn’t have to be a chore or another to-do list item. And let it be enough.

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I just ran a few errands outside on this gorgeous day. I walked for maybe 20 minutes total, and since I saw clients all morning and sat a lot, I unrolled the yoga mat that I keep in my office and stretched my back and hamstrings. I also remembered some of the strengthening exercises that Peter gave me long ago to prevent re-injury and spent a few minutes taking care of my slightly tired, slightly stiff forty-something body. It was probably a total of 35 minutes of “exercise.” This was not Schwarzenegger-level aerobic, strength, or flexibility work, but it was just right for Heidi Schauster on a day when she had already worked a fair amount. I felt good in my body afterwards -- energized, rejuvenated, and not wiped out. I enjoyed the autumn leaves and the fluffy clouds on my errands and out my window. After a short meditative rest (shavasana) to close my movement activities, I went back to my chair. After this bit of movement and mind-clearing, I was able to sit down, feel creative, and write the blog post for this week that wanted to be written.

Keys to Mindful Movement: (Schausten-egger style)

  • Find activities that you love and that really energize you. Do you like to move alone, with a friend, or in groups? Do you like high-intensity sweating, gentle yoga, or some of both?

 

  • Listen to your body. If you feel too sore, tired, and spent after exercising, you may be doing too much at a level that is not sustainable -- or your daily activities plate may be too full for that level of physical activity.

 

  • Never ignore injuries. Soreness when you use new muscles is normal, but pain is a message from your body. What is it trying to tell you...?
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  • Throw out all the “shoulds” that you have about exercise. How do you like to move? How often does movement work with your level of fitness and lifestyle? You can always do more when your body asks for it or your schedule allows, but working out hard and not getting enough sleep, for example, is a recipe for burnout.

 

  • Think outside the box (or gym). Find ways to move in your daily life. And, yes, taking the stairs and walking or biking downtown does count!

Our bodies were designed for movement, yet we sit and stare at screens more and more these days. We need to move more than ever, but if we mindlessly exercise -- not listening to our bodies and what they are telling us about what feels good (and what feels lousy), then we can develop a challenging relationship to physical activity that is not unlike the struggles with food that are so common among us today.

Get out and play...   Smell the roses or the crisp autumn air...   Shake your thang...

Movement, like eating, is a pleasure that sustains us and should remind us that being in a body is not so bad. Honor you body’s wisdom.

What kind of movement are you hungry for?  Today... In this moment...

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Ten Perfect Foods You Can’t Live Without and Why This is Garbage

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I think that if I see another article about the Top Ten Foods that You Must Eat in order to have Perfect Health, I might just implode. Not really. But it does drive me nuts to see foods categorized into “good” and “bad,” as this perpetuates the myth that there is one more virtuous way to eat than another.

Yes, I am a registered dietitian, and a couple of decades ago I studied a lot of chemistry and anatomy and physiology. I know that some foods have more vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals than others. I know that the more colorful plate of food is generally the most nutrient-dense. I’m not going to argue that encouraging us to get more fruits and veggies in our diets is wrong. However, encouraging people to believe that drinking a green smoothie each day makes up for erratic and unbalanced eating the rest of the week is a grave mistake. I have seen too many very intelligent people skip meals and feel low blood sugar crashes because they believed that drinking a smoothie was a substitute for listening to their body’s needs and preferences and hunger.

So, I really hate to burst your bubble, but here is the real deal about smoothies -- and quinoa -- and kale. They aren’t perfect foods. In fact, NO one food is perfect. Please please please give up that view. Our bodies need lots of different nutrients in order to be healthy.

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So, full disclosure. I actually like quinoa -- and kale -- and frequently make smoothies of many types. My favorite has fresh grated ginger, chocolate (cacao), and almond milk in it. My children will catch me sneaking some spinach into their fruit smoothies, and they don’t even mind any more because they like the taste, if there are also plenty of sweet berries in there, too. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, coconut, whole grains, avocados.... Yes, these are all health-giving foods that may have disease-preventative qualities. What I worry about is the way that health-improving foods are given such rock star status that they start showing up all over the place.

For instance, we used to think that coconut oil was on the “bad” list and clogged our arteries. Then, a more recent bit of research indicated that coconut may be good for us. Now it’s showing up in everything from yogurt to bottled coconut water drinks. None of those foods are probably bad for us by themselves, but we don’t know what the effect of eating many coconut derivatives in one day might be.  Many of these products are not coconut-the-way-nature-intended-it. I once did a diet assessment of a vegetarian client years ago and found out that she was eating seven different products with derivatives of soy in them in one day. (This is pretty easy to do with all of the soybean oil and added soy protein in many products.) Everything that she’d read was telling her that soy was super healthy, but I still cautioned her against so much processed soy.

We take nutritional advice to the extreme because moderation is not sexy. And because eating virtuously is one way we can feel better about ourselves -- and feel in control of our lives in an increasingly complex world.

But whenever we listen to the Top Ten Foods You Can’t Do Without and stop listening to our inner wisdom about what our bodies most need to eat in any given moment, we create a big disconnect between our bodies and the act of eating. We trust someone else’s advice for how we should eat over our own -- and we believe, erroneously, that there is a food prescription out there that everyone should follow.

Studies have shown that young children, over the course of a week and month (though not daily) will naturally choose a diet that is varied and complete nutritionally. When I ask my 8-year-old daughter why she didn’t eat a particular meal or snack, she says, “Because I didn’t like it,” looking at me like I must be crazy if I think that she’s going to eat anything that she doesn’t really like. She will also sometimes say, “I don’t like this, but I’m really hungry, so I’m eating it.” Her logic is pretty simple around food and it hasn’t been tainted by the “shoulds” and “should-nots” out there.

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Somewhere along the line, though, we stop listening to the wisdom in our bodies that tells us things like, “I’m really in the mood for that soup,” “I feel like I need some grounding food,” or “I have a real taste for squash, but not tomatoes.” Sometimes our bodies crave unusual foods, like the pregnant semi-vegetarian who suddenly wants to eat meat much more often. (This is not unusual when she needs extra protein and iron to grow a baby.) Sometimes our bodies want to eat more food when we have been more active, especially if we are using new muscles. Women usually want to eat more at the end of their menstrual cycles when metabolism increases and they do actually require a bit more food. Ever wonder why you suddenly feel like you want to eat some fish? Or why a sandwich is more appealing than a salad some days, but not others?

Our bodies have lots of wisdom about what we need, as long as we listen. Setting up foods as “good” or “bad” -- or always choosing the “healthy” or “low-calorie” option overrides the body’s good judgement about what to eat. But maybe you are so out of practice with really listening to your body. Maybe you aren’t used to listening to hunger and don’t even know what your real food preferences are these days. You think you like a particular food, but you aren’t sure that you feel very good after eating it.

My first suggestion is to s...l...o...w... d...o...w...n... the process of eating. This is what eating mindfully looks like and many of us rarely eat this way. (I mindlessly eat lunch while I check email more than I’d like to admit.) Try this some time when you are alone and undistracted. That, in and of itself, could be a challenge!

  • Pause before you prepare yourself a meal (if you have the choice) and ask yourself what you really want to eat. What textures, flavors, temperatures would be appealing? Try not to let your ideas about nutrition dictate your choices. You may have to get really quiet and still, if you aren’t used to this, in order to read your body’s signals here.

 

  • Take in the visual appeal of the food and the smell before even taking a bite.

 

  • Ask yourself how hungry you are for this food. Is it stomach hunger or is your mouth or mind hungry for it mainly?

 

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  • Think about where the food came from and all the people, animals, plants, sunshine, and rain that made the meal possible. Don’t just wolf down this miraculous dish! Try to cultivate and feel real gratitude for the food.

 

  • Take a few slow bites and notice the flavor and texture and feel of the food in your mouth. Savor the pleasure of eating each bite.

 

  • After several slow, enjoyable bites, ask yourself how hungry you still are for this food. Repeat the process above.

 

  • Notice when you are getting full. What does that feel like in your body? How do you know when to stop? Notice the sensations.

This all may sound rather simplistic because it is. Regardless, many of us have lost the ability to eat this way -- in a way that is really in tune with our bodies. Eating feeds our souls and hearts more if done in this careful, nurturing way. Try it even with a few bites each day. You will see a difference in your relationship with food start to emerge. Many of my clients who practice mindfulness in their eating report that their souls and hearts feel more fed when they eat this way; they feel cared for. And if they are finding other ways to nourish themselves outside of meals -- with activities, people, and time to re-energize -- then food takes its place as just one of the many pleasures in their lives. Sometimes this can be a long process of healing, but it starts with trusting yourself -- and not the next Top Ten Perfect Foods list.

We are all perfectly imperfect. So is our food. Eat what you like. Eat what makes you feel good. In each very different moment. Pay careful attention to the wisdom of your very own body.

If you liked this passage, please nourish yourself with the whole book. Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self is available here on my website, on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Also, sign up for free seasonal inspiration below. 

Low Carbohydrates Lead to Big Cravings

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I sat around the table at a restaurant with several other parents. Sometimes when I go out, I like to pose as an insurance agent so that I can really have a break from my work, but this group knew that I was a nutritionist. My colleagues in nutrition often commiserate about being stalked in the grocery store. Someone even followed one of my dietitian friends around a buffet table, saying that she was going to take exactly what my friend was putting on her plate (as if we nutritionists somehow have the answers to what all bodies should have to eat at any given moment!). Well, all eyes were on me at the restaurant as I ordered the seasonal root vegetable stew and enjoyed a homemade roll. Every other person at the table ordered a salad with some sort of meat and didn’t touch the bread. I saw more than one person look longingly at my plate and felt sad for them.

I remembered the time, early in my career, when everyone was so afraid of the fat in foods. I’m dating myself when I talk about Snackwells Cookies, where the fat (and taste) was taken out and replaced by more sugar. Those cookies would probably not sell today because, collectively, we are more afraid of carbohydrates than fats this decade. I have an old handout from the 90s about the reasons why fat is essential in the diet; it sits in my file cabinet like a relic of nutritional history. Today, the number one food component that my clients are avoiding is carbohydrate.

While I’m delighted that we are not starving our brains of fats any more, I’m equally disturbed by the elimination of yet another macronutrient. Macronutrients in foods include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and water. These differ from food’s micronutrients -- the vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals -- that we hear about so frequently as having health-giving properties. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats contain calories, units of energy that are the true fuel that our body can use for everything that it does. If macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) are our gasoline, then micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are the spark plugs -- important to make sure the engine runs smoothly, but not the major fuel source.

The body needs a certain amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in order to function optimally, and there is some debate as to just how much we need of each. In my experience -- and I have 15+ years of nutrition counseling behind this -- taking in too much or too little of any food component causes problems. Too little fat makes us preoccupied with food and contributes to reproductive system decline. Too little protein makes us tired, weak, and hungry constantly. And, because this is a post about carbohydrate avoidance, I’m going to spend a little more time on this one...

When a client comes to me and complains about intermittent binge eating or over-eating at night, there is often an emotional or stress-related trigger. But, along with this, there is frequently a diet that is too low in carbohydrates. The cravings for high-sugar, high-starch foods (the cookies and chips and other baked goods) that accompany the compulsive eating are often encouraged by the fact that the client is not eating enough grain-based foods during the day. This is particularly easy to do with  low-carb, gluten-free eating trends today, as restaurants are trying to accommodate consumers’ desires to eat less carbohydrates.

"Aren’t we eating too many carbs, though?" many clients ask. It’s not good to eat up the whole bread basket before eating a meal, right? Of course. Moderation, while not a very sexy term in the nutritional lexicon, is always advised with any eating. In fact, if one tunes in and eats mindfully, moderation is what will keep coming up. The public health message that we need to decrease our carbohydrate intake comes from the fact that, in America, our muffins are gigantic, our intake of sugary soda is excessive, and the super-sizing of everything from ice cream cones to sandwiches is significant. Over the last several decades, typical portion sizes of high-carbohydrate foods have increased, and this makes it increasingly hard to eat moderately and trust our instincts. Large portions becoming commonplace has made it hard for us to decide when we are full and have had enough to eat.

That said, restricting carbohydrates is NOT the answer! One of the members of my Non-diet Book Club said this morning, “Any time there is a suggestion of deprivation, I go crazy.” As many weight-loss-diet veterans will agree, taking away foods creates a state of deprivation, which often leads to cravings and overeating of the “bad” foods. This is particularly the case when someone greatly decreases their carbohydrate foods -- especially grain products, like rice, whole grains (oats, quinoa, millet, etc.) breads, cereals, and pastas. In fact, I find that when someone eats less of these foods per day than their body needs, they often crave sugar, the simplest form of carbohydrate.

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So how much carbohydrate does one need to eat in a day? That depends a lot on your body size, activity level, metabolism, and the overall composition of your diet. If you are really lost here, seek out a registered dietitian to give you a reality check around how much carbohydrate and grain-based food is typical and minimal. Ultimately, you have at your disposal the ability to modulate your food intake quite well, if you are willing to slow down and listen to your body. Young children do it quite easily. My daughters’ guinea pigs do it well. But somewhere along the lines, we learn not to trust ourselves. We learn that someone else -- some expert or diet book author or nutritional guru -- knows better about what we need to eat. We choose what to eat from influences outside our bodies versus the knowledge that we have within. Again, if you feel really out of touch with your internal cues around food choices, as well as hunger and fullness, a registered dietitian/nutritional therapist, particularly one who has a specialty in disordered eating, may be able to steer you back to the path of intuitive eating.

Carbohydrates also supply glycogen to muscles. Carbs help active bodies recover from physical exertion, so it is particularly problematic for active people and athletes to eat too little carbohydrates. Fortunately, I find that most active people find themselves picking or binge-eating to make up for a diet low in carbohydrate -- and preoccupied with hunger. The body hates to be starved of major nutrients.

This cycle of restricting carbs (whether it’s intentional or not) and then overeating or binge-eating as a rebound is certainly distressing, and it can often be avoided if enough carbohydrate is eaten in the first place. I’m not minimizing the use of food for soothing, comforting, or other emotional coping, but there is often a nutritional reason for the compulsive eating along with the emotional ones.

To find out if you might be eating too little carbohydrates, check in with yourself. Does this sound like you...?

  • You find yourself binging or compulsively eating high-starch or sugar foods, particularly in the evening.

 

  • You feel weak, tired, and have less energy for physical activity than you used to.

 

  • You find that it’s harder to physically exert yourself two days in a row, as if your muscles take longer to recover than they used to.

 

  • You have cravings for sugar or sweet-grainy foods (like cookies, muffins, breads) that don’t just show up as part of pre-menstrual syndrome.

 

  • You find yourself drooling over your neighbors’ plate of pasta or root-vegetable stew and unable to enjoy your own more moderately-carb dish. (There’s nothing wrong with your lower-carb dish, by the way.  If you were eating enough carbs regularly, then you might not feel so deprived and just enjoy it.)

While the above conditions could be caused by other lifestyle or nutritional factors, these are the things that I find many of my clients complaining about when they are eating too little carbohydrate, particularly grain/starch-based foods like rice, potatoes, and grains.

Julia Child was a famous chef who lived here in Cambridge, Massachusetts for much of her life and lived to be 92.  Anyone who encountered her or watched her very popular cooking show would not deny that she celebrated the pleasures of food. She said, "Because of the media hype and woefully inadequate information, too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food, and what does fear of food do to the digestive system? I am sure that an unhappy or suspicious stomach, constricted and uneasy with worry, cannot digest properly. And if digestion is poor, the whole body politic suffers.”

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Life is too short to spend it afraid of noodles!  One of my great joys in this work is seeing clients find joy and peace in eating again, no matter what their individual path is to do so. “Bon Appetit!”

Gluten and Dairy and Sugar ... Oh My!

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I'm tired of struggling with food and thinking about food so much. I don't know if I should avoid carbs or sugar or gluten or what. And every time I do one of those things, I end up eating more of the crap that I don't want to eat.

One of my clients wrote that. I think it resonates with so many people’s experience of what I call Nutrition Information Overload. Many clients come to me after reading about someone’s journey to health and wholeness since going off dairy or gluten or all animal products or flour or sugar or (the list goes on...) They wonder, “Should I cut it all out, too?”  When I thought about writing on this topic, I had an image of the characters in the Wizard of Oz, huddling close in the forest repeating, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my...”  On our way to the Emerald City of perfect health or contentment or a more peaceful relationship with food, we may be afraid of the forces lurking in our food supply, sure to take us off our paths down the yellow brick road.

Well, Oz imagery aside, I have become increasingly aware (over the 20+ years since I studied nutrition in college) that we are collectively more and more afraid of food. And I am not just talking about the increased number of eating disorders that are treated. I am reflecting on the way that it has become rather mainstream to give up gluten or dairy or sugar or meat or soy or all of the above... And while I will never argue that more fruits and vegetables are a good thing, I am concerned about the way in which certain styles of eating are making some of us feel more virtuous than others. And how badly people feel when they aren’t able to stick to a more “virtuous” way to eat.

As someone who has family members with food allergies and sensitivities -- and even has one herself -- I can appreciate the way in which certain foods can make us feel better or worse. Celiac Disease is a very real condition in which it is quite dangerous to be eating foods that contain gluten. Gluten, a mixture of two proteins that are found in cereal grains, particularly wheat, gives dough its elastic texture. It is wonderful that someone with Celiac Disease can find many restaurants and stores here in the greater Boston area with items that meet their dietary restrictions. It’s also great that food allergies are being taken seriously -- as many of them are life-threatening -- and that frequently ingredient lists are available.

Food sensitivities (versus allergies) are more difficult to identify and many clients come in wondering if they have some. The only real way to pinpoint whether or not you are sensitive to a certain food is to eliminate the one food (even little amounts of it) for 2 to 4 weeks, and then reintroduce the food back, monitoring for any symptoms. Symptoms are so subjective, so only you can determine if you feel better on or off certain foods. Food allergies/sensitivities mostly show up as symptoms in the lungs, throat, sinuses, or skin. They can also have behavioral consequences, like irritability, that are harder to pinpoint.

Gluten sensitivity is not Celiac Disease, but there is evidence that it is a real condition. Some people are indeed less able to tolerate gluten and will feel better if they don’t include foods with gluten in their diets. Again, when a true elimination is done for a short time, and then the foods with gluten are added back, those who are sensitive notice symptoms. One of my friends who is gluten sensitive swears that when he eats gluten, he feels like “his emotions have him instead of him having his emotions.” Who am I to disprove this experience? I always recommend that when someone feels that they might be sensitive to gluten, they get the test for Celiac Disease first. (They have to be eating gluten, though, in order for the test to be read correctly.) That way, the client knows if their gluten sensitivity could lead to more serious life-threatening problems if they don’t fully eliminate this food component. People with Celiac Disease shouldn’t even nibble on wheat bread or use cutting boards that were used to slice it. It’s that dangerous for them to eat gluten, so being clear about what kind of intolerance you have is important.

About two-thirds of people have a hard time digesting cows’ milk. Some people are intolerant of the carbohydrate portion of the milk (lactose) and have digestive symptoms. Some people are intolerant of the protein portion of the milk (casein) and have lung/sinus/skin symptoms. Some have both. With lactose intolerance, symptoms can vary from person to person. In other words, someone might have no symptoms with yogurt because the cultures added to yogurt help to break down the lactose and make it easier to digest, but then have major symptoms (diarrhea and bloating) after drinking milk. Some people’s lactose intolerance is mild, and they can eat all kinds of dairy products as long as they don’t have more than, say, two in one day.

When I discovered my daughter’s cows’ milk sensitivity, I noticed skin and sinus changes that completely disappeared when she stopped eating cows’ milk products for awhile. We kept allowing small amounts of cows’ milk in baked goods and butter here and there, giving her body a chance to slowly build up a tolerance. Today, she is adding back a little cheese when she is with friends without consequence and may be growing out of it. The way we manage and treat non-life-threatening food allergies and sensitivities in children is changing. (This could be another whole blog post some day...)

If someone does a real food elimination challenge and feels better not eating a certain food, then who am I to tell them that they must eat it?  However, I do always ask my clients to evaluate how much is the food elimination in the service of feeling better in their body versus trying to control their body -- or feel more control in their lives.

What I find most worrisome is the way that so many people today avoid certain food categories without really testing the reality in their own bodies. They just believe that because some celebrity feels good off gluten, then they must, too. I also worry when someone believes that taking away certain foods is the answer to their challenging relationship with food. For example, they believe that by eliminating sugar, flour, and gluten, they will halt their compulsive eating. I rarely find this to be true, even though I strive to work with my clients’  food preferences as they heal from whatever pain and suffering underlies the drive to cope using food. Most of the time, cutting out certain food groups just feels like another diet, and the research shows that most diets fail to be sustainable. (See my previous blog post about this:  Lose The Diet for Swimsuit Season.)

I acknowledge the addictive quality inherent in some foods in our food supply, but there is also more work to healing an addiction than just eliminating the addictive substance. Sometimes a client will cut out sugar, believing that it will make them feel more in control of their food choices or their life. At first, that is often how it feels, but generally the real reasons that their eating or their lives feel out of their control still exist. Instead of admitting that sugar-free was not the answer to their deeper life challenges, they often feel like a failure. And if someone tries to cut out lots of carbohydrate foods, they often end up craving these foods that are vital to our health.

All bodies are different and they respond to foods differently. In fact, our mood can effect how we respond to food, too. If you’ve ever had a stomachache before a major interview, do you blame the food you just ate or do you blame the stress about the interview? Sometimes it’s both. Certain foods “mix” better with stress than others. (Yes, comfort foods sometimes really are soothing.) Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are stressed or anxious or keyed up about something. If our digestion is effected by it, we sometimes blame the food we ate, but it may simply be that the stress constricted and slowed down our digestion.

So, if you are wondering if it would help you feel better to eliminate some food or food group, go deep inside and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want to eliminate this food because I truly believe that I will feel better in my body if I don’t eat it -- and not because I want to feel more in control of my eating, or my body, or my life?

 

  • Am I willing to try eliminating this food for 2 to 4 weeks (and is it safe and feasible for me to do so), then adding it back to notice the changes in my symptoms?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, then you might be ready to entertain the idea of testing yourself for a food sensitivity. But first ask the next two questions...

  •   Am I frequently under-eating, over-eating, or eating erratically (going long times without eating and then eating a lot all at once)?

 

  • Do I frequently eat emotionally, so that my emotions, thoughts, and stress might be effecting the way I feel when I eat food as much or more than the actual foods that I eat?

If you answered “yes”  or even “maybe” to one or both of these questions, then work on finding more balance in your life and eating before investigating food sensitivities.  Erratic eating is very often the culprit when it comes to gastrointestinal symptoms. Also, we ALL eat emotionally sometimes, but if you do so often, then working on your relationship with food may be more important than finding out if you have a gluten sensitivity.

A registered dietitian /nutrition therapist  who has expertise in disordered and emotional eating may be able to help you find some balance in your eating and help you decide if decreasing or eliminating foods might make you feel better. Beware of any nutrition professional who tries to give you a prescriptive way of eating or tells you to eliminate some foods that you don’t have a self-tested allergy or sensitivity to. Find a nutrition therapist who is interested in your relationship with food and your body and will tease out any of those issues first before doing a food sensitivity challenge. My clients often hear me saying that there is a difference (and it can be a fine line) between not eating something because it’s aligned with your values to not eat it, and not eating something because it’s aligned with your eating disorder -- or desire for control over your body and weight.

On our way to the Emerald City of health and well-being, it is often not whole food groups or foods that we need to fear. In fact, the more that we eat with presence and mindfulness and listen to our bodies, the more we find that our bodies can handle a wide variety of foods, and that they most enjoy foods that are prepared with love, care, and attention. If you believe that not incorporating a certain food into your diet will help you feel better, work with your nutrition therapist to do so in a way that really listens to your body and what it has to say, instead of giving up gluten or flour or sugar or meat because it’s fashionable in certain circles to say that you do. Be your own investigative reporter, and get help and support if your relationship with food also needs help. Find a way to eat that makes YOU feel your best and allows you to get on with living your very own fantastic life!

 

Change and Resistance

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Change.

It’s in the September air here in Boston. Children start school. The college students come back. Mattresses and dressers are seen on sidewalks and on top of cars everywhere. In fact, a cool September breeze blows through my windows as I write this in my new office between Davis and Porter Squares, on the Somerville/Cambridge line. It feels exciting to be in this sunlit space, despite all the adjustments that moving an office creates.

I haven’t blogged in what feels like too long. There are many very valid excuses, like taking a vacation, spending summer days with my children, and moving my practice space from two locations into a new one right here. I took an unintended two months off from writing, and today I feel rusty and resistant and prone to procrastinate.

Before I started typing this, I walked into Davis Square to get lunch. I could have lingered long, but the part of me that really wanted to sit down and write today told me to have my lunch and come back to my breezy space to re-engage with my blog readers after this summer break. It was quite amazing to discover just how many things I had to do before I actually sat down to type. I had to make a cup of tea, make sure my desk was set up just right, open my third floor windows more to let in that breeze, finish up some paperwork, call a few clinicians about our mutual clients, etc, etc...

Yes, it was striking how many really important things I had to do before I got around to doing what I really wanted to do: write. In fact, in the hierarchy of things that I wanted to do today, reconnecting with you, my readers, was top on my list. So, why was I feeling so unable to just sit down and do it...? Why was I procrastinating...?

When I slowed down and checked in with myself, I realized, for one thing, that I was really out of the habit. Prior to my writing hiatus, I had been blogging every other week. I took a much-needed 11-day vacation and unplugged myself completely from my computer and work, but then I never really went back to the blog. Sure, I have wonderful reasons, but regardless, I got out of the habit. And here I am, with a whole afternoon finally free and dedicated to blogging and I’m (first unconsciously, and then quite consciously) avoiding it...

This got me thinking about my clients and resistance to change. So many people come into my practice because they want to be eating differently. They want to have a better relationship with food or recover from an eating disorder. They know what they ultimately need to do to make the changes, but it’s so hard.

How can we want something so badly, but find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t support those goals and values that we hold dear? Although there are lots of reasons why we resist change, one of the simple reasons is that change is hard. Until something becomes well-practiced and rhythmic, it feels awkward. My writing today feels like that. When it’s a more regular practice, it flows more freely and with ease and energy. After being away from it for so long, it feels foreign, choppy, and far from easy. Today I can viscerally appreciate how hard it is for my clients to change their habits with food and physical activity.

So, after an hour and a half of procrastination, how did I finally sit down and blog? I remembered something from a book that I am currently reading with colleagues in one of my supervision groups about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The book is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, and I highly recommend it. ACT is a psychotherapeutic modality that (at least as I see it) is a soup mix of various behavioral therapies with a hefty dash of mindfulness. ACT concepts can be applied as part of psychotherapy or nutrition therapy or simply on their own at home by anyone. In fact, they can be applied anywhere there is a desire for change.

One of the major concepts that I’ve appreciated about ACT is the concept of slowing down and asking yourself, “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” Are you focused on what is meaningful to you and aligned with your values? When we have psychological problems or stressors, we often think that we should put our lives on hold while we try to lessen or take away the pain. Working with ACT means that we don’t try to take away the pain, we try to “lean into it” and learn from it, while focusing on acting in ways that are meaningful and values-driven.

My favorite metaphor in the book is one about grief. Grief is like an inflatable ball that we are holding underwater. We can hold it and hide it underwater for a long time time, but the moment that our guard is down and we remove our hands from the ball, it pops back up to the surface. Many of us try to bury grief by working a lot, by taking addictive drugs, and, yes, even by binging or restricting or obsessing about food. We will do anything to make the pain go away. Although these methods work at first, they hurt us in the long run. The ACT model says that instead of trying to push away pain, we can acknowledge it’s presence in our lives and ask ourselves, “How can I best take care of myself and act in accordance with what I value, given that I have this suffering in my life?” There are many techniques for working on change in this way, and I am delighted to report that many of my clients are finding the techniques awkward at first, but very transformative once they get into a rhythm of practicing them regularly.

This brings me back to my own awkwardness and procrastination today about writing. I was stuck in my “shoulds.” I should finish this task before I start writing. It should feel easy and flowing and energizing when I write. I should not have let so much time go by without blogging... Well, that got me nowhere. (In fact, a massage therapist friend has told me that “shoulds” give people tight shoulders. I could feel the tension mounting.) I was trying to avoid the suffering, the awkwardness, the strong resistance to change that my body and mind were feeling about writing.

So, instead of trying to push away the discomfort that it took to sit down and stare at a blank document on my computer, I sat with it for awhile. It made me squirm. I kept looking out the window, wanting to flee and go back down to the Square for a latte. I took a deep breathe. And another. I  acknowledged to myself that sitting down to write is hard, particularly sitting down to write something that other people will read. I reminded myself that getting away from writing for two whole months was a choice that I made. I would probably make it again, given the same life circumstances. I decided to renew my commitment to myself and my readers to get back on track and write biweekly again. I also realized that being rigid and unforgiving toward myself when I don’t do it perfectly is not helpful.

My eyes darted around for something else that I needed to do so that I could avoid writing some more. I tried to be kind to myself, and noticed this without judgement. I sat some more and thought about how writing today was really the way for me to live the life that I want to live right now. It’s not easy all the time, and sometimes it is a really big struggle, but writing and reaching out with free, easily accessible inspiration is meaningful to me, especially to include a community that is beyond the boundaries of my own practice walls. And a regular writing practice, like the blog, keeps my writerly muscles toned.

Wow, was it hard to get started today! And, wow, did I learn about myself and my habits a lot in the process! I think that instead of spending an hour or two procrastinating in two weeks when I sit down here to write again, I’ll start with that question: “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” and remind myself that my writing practice is meaningful to me, no matter how hard it is to get started. In fact, the struggle is not only inevitable (as I’m sure all you writers out there will agree), but a great teacher.

Can you imagine how this might be applied to changing your relationship with food or with physical activity? Change is challenging and resistance to change can be strong. It’s hard to break out of our comfort zones and those places that we go to automatically. However, we can slow down and ask ourselves: How do we best take care of ourselves during these times -- in a way that is aligned with our own values and meaning? How do we eat in a way that nourishes us and makes it easier for us to be the people that we want to be in the world -- and not how the eating disorder or someone else told us we “should” eat? I believe that if we can begin to ask those questions, then we will begin to understand that change, however much it makes us squirm, really is possible.