Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Debriefing Over Dinner

How would you answer this question? “During the past seven days, how many times did all, or most, of your family eat a meal together?”

That’s one of the questions asked of young people in a study recently reported in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The authors concluded that, among other factors, family meal frequency was associated with higher calcium intake.

Aside from improved nutrition, there is a laundry list of benefits that go along with regularly sharing food as a family. They range from the not so surprising—stronger family relationships—to the impressive—better grades in school and decreased risk of using marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol.

When I was growing up, my family had dinner together every evening. My mother would call from work and remind us, my sister and me, to get dinner started. My sister, older than me by only 13 months, always took the call and then would dole out the duties. I may have grumbled about it at the time, but I was happy to have dinner when my parents got home. We didn’t know any differently. Restaurants were scarce, money was tight and everyone we knew ate at home, too.

Nowadays, things are different. Time is tight, restaurants are enticing and many families either eat out or skip out on putting dinner on the table.  

If you are interested in finding out how to get dinners started, want to have family meals more often, or want to know how to solve troubles at the table, sign up for the 3 session program, Food for Families. It’s a noon-time program that begins next week on Wednesday February 3, then continues for the next 2 Wednesdays. This program is open to Michigan State University benefits-eligible faculty, staff and retirees and their spouses or partners. Pre-enrollement is required. Participants receive a copy of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, the text for the program.


  • Larson NI, Neumark-Sztainer D, Harnack L, Wall M, Story M, Eisenberg ME. Calcium and dairy intake: Longitudinal trends during the transition to young adulthood and correlates of calcium intake. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2009;41:254-260.
  • National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). The Importance of Family Dinners IV. 2007.

6 S’s for Mindful Eating

I watched a segment of The Today Show last Friday. Meredith Vieira interviewed David Zinczenko and Madelyn Fernstrom, both authors of diet books who make frequent appearances on the show. Today’s disturbing news: not all calorie counts are created equal. Meredith opened the discussion with the questions, “Just how accurate are food labels? Who is to blame?”

The concern stemmed from a research article in the January 2010 issue of The Journal of the American Dietetic Association that revealed discrepancies between the stated and measured calorie content of commercially prepared foods. The results indicate that, in contrast to two recent reports in the media, restaurant meals and prepared meals purchased in US supermarkets do not typically contain substantially more energy than stated. Measured energy values did average 18% higher in restaurant foods and 8% higher in supermarket meals than stated, but neither was statistically significant. The study concluded that the differences “were within acceptable limits based on the federal regulations for packaged and restaurant foods.”

Meredith and guests had a grim conversation focusing on the 18 percent and the earlier media reports. I have to tell you, I had a steady stream of comments running through my mind! Here’s what Mr. Zinczenko had to say (my thoughts are in parenthesis):       

  • An 18 percent difference between what the food label says and what the package/portion actually contained “could result in 30 to 40 pounds per year.” (Weight gain to the dieter, I presume.)
  • He pleaded with the government to be as “passionate about nutrition as they are about weights and measures.” (There’s a whole lot more to nutrition than the calorie content of food.)
  • He went on to say, “Food manufacturers are like teenagers whose parents are away.” (Huh?)

 I saw a glimmer of hope when Ms. Fernstrom suggested that the consumer be a “mindful eater.” I briefly fantasized that she was about to tell everyone to abandon calorie counting and instead, to pay attention to your body’s signals of how much to eat. But alas, she went on to recommend, “If it looks like more than 500 calories—if it looks like way too much—don’t eat it.”

As I snapped back to reality, it was clear that Ms. Fernstrom operates in the weight-centered paradigm. Yet her language—out with the “diet” word and in with the “mindful eater” term—is confusing. She may be straddling paradigms. Perhaps she knows the truth: dieting rarely results in long-term weight loss.

The health-centered paradigm uses the term “mindful eating” to describe the manner in which you eat which has nothing to do with judging or controlling amounts. These 6 S’s* (pronounced “successes”) capture the essence of mindful eating:

  1. Stop dieting. It is not possible to pay attention to your body’s needs when you are restricting calories.
  2. Stay well fed. Provide yourself with reliable eating times. Eat 3 meals and a snack or two as needed.
  3. Say it’s OK. Give permission to eat by saying, “It’s OK to eat this.” When you give permission to eat, you inherently give permission to stop as well.
  4. Savor your food. Pay attention to colors, textures, tastes and smells. Chewing releases the aromas and flavors for maximum enjoyment.
  5. Stay present when eating. Avoid multi-tasking. Take a deep cleansing breath before eating. When you are centered and paying attention, you are more aware of the changes in your hunger that signal when you are done with eating.
  6. Satisfy your need. Make sure you have eaten enough to satisfy your hunger and your appetite. This will vary from meal to meal depending on how much food your body needs and how delighted your senses are with the food.

It’s okay to be critical about what you hear the “experts” saying. You are the expert when it comes to feeding yourself.


  • Urban LE, Dallal GE, Robinson LM, Ausman LM, Saltzman E, Roberts SB. The accuracy of stated energy contents of reduced-energy, commercially prepared foods. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010; 110:116-123.
  • Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter.  New York: St Martins Press; 1995.
  • Satter E: Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How To Eat, How To Raise Good Eater, How To Cook. Madison: Kelcy Press; 2008.

*Adapted from “6 S’s for Mindful Eating” by Esther Park, MS, RD.

High Risk for Big Losers

One of the many reality shows to hit the airwaves since the turn of the century, The Biggest Loser debuted in the fall of 2004 and began its 9th season last week.  Contestants, chosen for their size and girth, become roommates on an isolated ranch. They are put on extremely low calorie diets. Work-outs with personal trainers last five to six hours each day. The competition is between teams and the grand prize is awarded to the contestant who loses the most weight. Although health and quality of life are touted as the goal, weight loss is the sole criteria for remaining on the show and winning the quarter-million dollar prize.

The amount of weight loss is staggering. Over the course of 21 weeks, leading contestants lose over 100 pounds each. Erik, self-described as the “biggest winner of all the biggest losers,” lost 214 pounds, more weight loss than any other contestant. At last report Erik had gained back 184 pounds. His experience is far from unique. Most people in clinical weight loss programs regain weight after completing treatment. The vast majority of participants in programs promoting lifestyle modifications (diet, exercise, and behavior therapy) regain 30 to 35 % of their lost weight within the year after treatment and will have regained all of the weight, often more than what was lost, within 5 years. Sustained weight loss is particularly difficult for individuals who lose 20 percent or more of their body weight.

Weight is not the only thing people lose. Endeavors resulting in major reduction in body weight cause losses of money, time, self-esteem and health. Rapid weight loss increases the risk of gallstones, cardiac arrhithmias, electrolyte abnormalities, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, sexual apathy and many physical signs of nutritional deficiency. Weight regain adversely affects blood pressure, serum lipid levels and general quality of life. Biggest Loser season one winner, Ryan, who within 3 years had regained 90 of the 122 pounds lost during the 2004 season, is quoted: “Unfortunately, keeping the weight off has been tough for me…the biggest way  [the show] changed my life is I feel guilty for gaining the weight back.”

Health implications aside, perhaps the worst aspect of The Biggest Loser is the shame brought upon the contestants for their body size. Voice-overs of contestants speak of self-hatred; trainers push competitors in grueling workouts; and teammates bully each other under the guise of motivating them to lose more weight.

Body hatred creates fear and anxiety–not the best weight management strategy. “When you’re down on yourself and your body, you’re much more likely to act destructively,” said Linda Bacon, professor at City College of San Francisco and nutrition researcher at University of California, Davis. “If you exercise as punishment for weighing too much, how can you learn to enjoy being active? If you eat salads only as a way to change the body you hate, how will you enjoy the wonderful tastes of fresh vegetables?”

People who accept their bodies take better care of them. You make better choices about what to eat, how often to exercise, when to schedule preventative medical tests–a whole host of self-care that starts with self-love.