Archive for the ‘Intuitive Eating’ Category

Beware of 100-Calorie Packs

…especially if you diet. That’s the findings of a study published in The Journal of Consumer Research.

You’ve seen 100-calorie packs in the grocery store, convenience markets and vending machines. It seems like all snacks foods are available in them. 100-calorie packs made their way into the marketplace in 2004 and peaked in 2008 when 190 new 100-calorie pack foods entered the marketplace. Their numbers are dwindling a bit now, maybe due to the recession or maybe due to less interest in portion-control products. It could be that consumers heard about this study!

Researchers at Arizona State University wondered if the smaller packs were helping people control their calorie intake, the original marketing strategy behind 100-calorie packs.

How did consumers in the study react to the mini-packs? There was no single answer. It turned out that each person’s response hinged on his or her relationship with body weight and food.  To appreciate the findings, it is helpful to know what is meant by a couple of terms:

A restrained eater is someone who resists physiological urges to eat in order to lose weight or to maintain a reduced weight. Often, restrained eaters group foods into good and bad categories and prefer to know calorie content of a food before eating it.

An unrestrained eater usually goes by internal signals that he or she has eaten enough.

Both groups, restrained and unrestrained eaters, thought of the mini-packs as diet food. All of the study participants predicted they would want to eat less if the food was in the mini-packs as opposed to normal-size packs. But when it came to eating the food, the restrained eaters ate more from the mini-packs than did the unrestrained eaters. More often than not, the restrained eaters ate all of the mini-packs available to them whereas the unrestrained eaters ate some and left some.

So what is the appeal of a little bit of food in overpriced packages? My best guess is that restrained eaters gravitate to this type of packaging for “bad” or “forbidden” foods as part of an ongoing effort to eat less overall or to control their eating of less-than-desirable food. 

This study shows us that food packaged in mini-packs doesn’t really help anyone. It doesn’t fool anyone either. People have a basic need to feel there is enough food. That just can’t happen with food served up in mini-packs.

Food security comes from having a plentiful amount of normal food offered at predictable times throughout the day. Approaching meals and snacks in this way lets you pay attention, eat as much you want, and enjoy it.


Scott ML, Nowlis SM, Mandel N, and Morales A: The effects of reduced food size and package size on the consumption behavior of restrained and unrestrained eaters. Journal of Consumer Research. 2008; 35(3):391-405.

Satter E: Hierarchy of food needs. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2007; 39:187-188.


Eat then Tweet?

The popular social networking tool Twitter is being applied to eating. I have never tweeted so I am trying to envision how this works. The way I understand it, you eat, then you post to your Twitter page (tweet) what you ate, then you wait for your followers to reply with a tweet to tell you what they think of what you ate. This reply (re-tweet) goes out to all of your followers’ followers and pretty soon half of America knows what you ate for lunch.

It is such a popular thing to do that someone invented a Twitter-based food diary to allow you to tweet a real-time broadcast of what you just ate and the number of calories (determined by “the crowd”). The crowd includes 8,000 followers who help you scrutinize your food. Just in case the crowd can’t come up with a criticism for you, a sidebar on your Tweet What You Eat page features your own “Taboo Food List.”

Obviously, a lot of people think this is a good idea. Community support is always good, right?

Not when it comes to your food, according to the authors of a study published in 2007 in the journal Appetite. They found that dieters crave the foods they try to avoid. Forbidden foods become more desirable and lead to increased eating of those foods. Paradoxically, creating a taboo food list does not help you avoid the foods on it. Criticism from yourself and others makes you feel guilty, anxious and even depressed. With all of that going on, it is difficult to pay attention to what you’re eating and what your body needs.

Rather than tweeting what you eat, why not use the time to eat in a more relaxed manner? Begin by taking a deep cleansing breath and giving yourself permission to eat the food you have chosen. Given time, you’ll re-discover the joy of eating.

Fletcher B, Pine KJ, Woodbridge Z, and Nash A: How visual images of chocolate affect the craving and guilt of female dieters. 2007. Appetite. 48(2), 211-217.

A cookie by any other name

It is late afternoon and you have a twinge of hunger.  One of your co-workers sets out a plate of cookies and says, “I tried a new recipe for this high-fiber oatmeal snack made with healthy ingredients.  Whole grain oatmeal is good for your health because it contains soluble fiber. This oatmeal snack is low in saturated fat and has no trans fats.”  You help yourself to a cookie and begin to eat it.

How would it affect your eating if the cookies received a different introduction?  Same scenario, late afternoon, you’re hungry and a colleague offers you a tray of cookies, saying, “I tried this new recipe for gourmet cookies made with fresh butter and old-fashioned brown sugar.  These cookies are a real treat with a pleasant, sweet taste.”

Researchers at the University of Toronto used these two messages as they set out to investigate the effects of food-related beliefs about the healthiness of foods on the amount of food eaten during a snack.  In the study, undergraduate students were offered oatmeal raisin cookies under the guise of a market-research study involving a taste-testing task.  The students were offered identical cookies with one or the other introduction and invited to eat as many as they wanted after they had completed the taste-testing form.   Participants ate about 35% more when the cookies were presented as a healthy snack as opposed to when they were offered as a tasty treat.

Eaters often categorize food as healthy (good) and unhealthy (bad) based on their perception of the fat/calorie content of the food or the fattening nature of the food. The classification also comes from stereotyping based on the name of the food. In this case, oatmeal snack = good, gourmet cookie = bad. 

No matter the reason, when a food is deemed “healthy” it seems okay to eat more of it.  The categorization itself, then, influences how much you eat without you even realizing it.  Healthy/unhealthy food thoughts manipulate your eating rather than allowing you to trust your natural instincts about whether or not you want a cookie. And if you do, how much to eat of it. 

Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods lessens the impact of food-related messages.  With enough practice, you begin to disregard good food-bad food labels. You can savor the foods you choose and eat as much as you desire.


Provencher V, Polivy J, Herman CP. Perceived healthiness of food.  If it’s healthy, you can eat more! Appetite. 2009; 52:340-344.

Nutritionist vs. Nutritionism

Our host introduced me to Michael Pollan, author of several best selling books about food.  When the word “nutritionist” was connected to my name, Mr. Pollan raised his brow and said, “I hope I don’t offend you.”

I get a reaction from many people when they find out my profession. Maybe it’s the irony of my name but I think being in the presence of a nutritionist makes a lot of people uncomfortable, over-the-top nervous to share a meal with one. I guess they are afraid that I will judge them for how, what or how much they eat. So I have my standard reply—“I’m a liberal dietitian,” I say, hoping to ease their worries. But I don’t think most people are concerned that they will offend me.

On this occasion, I was sharing a meal with Michael Pollan along with a banquet table full of university folks who were in some way connected with sponsoring Mr. Pollan’s visit to our campus. It was a festive meal planned to feature foods from our great state. The salad greens, radishes, fingerling potatoes, beets and parsnips were grown in the high tunnels (hoop houses) of the Student Organic Farm; the wine, both red and white, from the Keweenaw Peninsula; the shrimp from a local farmer just 10 miles from campus. Even the butter pats were dressed for the occasion, sporting the Spartan seal to give at least the impression of being local.

So why would I be offended? Nutritionism. It’s a term Mr. Pollan adopted to give a proper name to what has happened to our food. As Mr. Pollan explains it, adding the “ism” takes nutrition from being a science to being an ideology. Beginning in the 1970’s, foods took a back seat to nutrients. Depending on the prevailing research, nutrients are added to foods to make them fit the newly discovered health benefits.

There are four premises to nutritionism:

  • Nutrients are the important reason to eat food.
  • Experts are the driving force in our food culture.
  • The world of food can be divided into good and evil.
  • The whole point of eating is health.

The story of margarine (or oleo, as Mom calls it) exemplifies nutritionism. Margarine came onto the market as a cheap substitute for butter. It wasn’t long before the food manufacturers convinced consumers that the “good nutrients” in margarine made it better than butter. Each new scientific discovery has emerged in its malleable sticks (or tubs) to give consumers more unsaturated fats, less cholesterol, more vitamin A, more mono-saturates, less trans fats—whatever the nutritionism-practicing nutritionists ordered. Margarine became “good” and butter became “evil.” The dairy case was so full of spreads, it was a dilemma to choose which to take home. Yet all along, butter tasted far better.

The butter-margarine conundrum and thousands of others like it have made eating complicated. As a consumer, if you listen to the science or give credence to food package claims, you can become confused about what you should eat. Yet we are apt to eat what we were brought up eating (for me, the exception being oleo). Families try to feed their members well, to the best of their abilities. Gathered together to break bread and share a meal, family members gain a whole lot more than nutrition.

Mr. Pollan tries to simplify eating with his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In his book, In Defense of Food, he persuades eaters to avoid “food like substances” and rather choose whole fresh foods. On the surface, this seems to simplify food selection. In reality, it’s a lot for people to trip over. It doesn’t give consideration to their circumstances. His latest book, Food Rules, is another clever look at our food supply; all tolled he came up with sixty-four rules. In my book, rules complicate eating.

Through his books and public appearances, Mr. Pollan has made his audience aware of what they are eating. It was thrilling to see a packed house at the Wharton Center for this World View Lecture Series. The audience was not disappointed. All in all, his speech was very entertaining.

Was I offended? Not in the least! Dispense with the rules and we would see eye to eye. For clarity, I’d like to change my title to “Eating Reassurance Expert.” Not all nutritionists practice nutritionism. Many of us recognize the joy of eating.

You are your own food guide

As a registered dietitian, I am well aware that March is the designated month to promote nutrition. Dietitians everywhere pull out all the stops to remind their audiences to “eat right.” This year’s appeal has those very words spelled out with fruits and vegetables forming the letters.

Each year’s theme is a new play on MyPyramid. This updated food guide now has a stick figure climbing up the pyramid’s side to remind us of the importance of physical activity. The information in the pyramid itself is very instructional. In case your forgot, it tells you to eat your fruits and vegetables and not too much sugar and fat.

Ironically,the pyramid has become the perfect stumbling block. If you allow the pyramid to get in your way, you might stub your toe on the “servings per day” it tells you to eat. I used to trip over the way it made me feel bad about the foods I wanted. Often, people ask me, “Where does ‘xyz’ fit?” That’s a great question. Let’s say ‘xyz’ is blueberry pie. Do blueberries, baked in a pie, suddenly zoom to the top of the pyramid to be categorized as a cautionary food?

Isn’t that the trouble with guides? Too directional.

It’s the pleasure you derive from eating the foods you like that keeps pushing you along to become more and more adventurous with your food selections. According to Ellyn Satter, “The key to nutritional excellence is variety growing out of genuine food enjoyment.”

Starting with enough food is essential. Don’t go back on that–moving along requires that you maintain what you achieved at the previous levels.

Your natural inclination is to seek out variety and you will once you get over being told what to do. You are the best food guide for you.

Permission to reproduce and distribute Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs granted by Ellyn Satter.

“My Stroke of Insight”

Jill Bolte Taylor will be speaking at MSU's Wharton Center on March 1, 2010 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available.

I wanted to read at least a bit of Jill Bolte Taylor’s book before going to her lecture March 1. My colleague handed me a copy from the Health4U library shelf. Standing there, I flipped through the book and landed, amazingly, on the pages where she described her right-minded approach to eating. Well, that drew me in…  

Jill Bolte Taylor was working as a neuroanatomist at Harvard Medical School when her life and career were interrupted suddenly by a stroke. It took her eight years to recover. She detailed the journey in her book, My Stroke of Insight. True to her vocation as a brain scientist and teacher, Dr. Taylor explains with great clarity the workings of the brain’s left and right hemispheres.  

Most humans are left brain dominant. The left brain sees the world in minute detail, takes those details and assembles them into a sequential story, and then takes that story and tells it over and over—a phenomenon Dr. Taylor calls “brain chatter.” The left brain houses the comparison center, where critical judgment and analysis takes place. Be aware, it can spin a tall tale out of just about anything.  

Contrast that with the brain’s right hemisphere where peace and tranquility reign supreme. The right brain takes in all the information from the body’s sensory centers and assimilates it into the here and now. In the right mind, no time exists but the present. Consider the terms Dr. Taylor chose for her right mind function: authentic self; euphoria; Nirvana; perception of myself as perfect, whole and beautiful; deep inner peace; and loving compassion.  

As I read the book (the entire book), I kept thinking how interesting it would be to silence my left hemisphere when it comes to food. After all, to eat intuitively one needs to quiet the mind and reach a state of calmness. When I do that, I can better appreciate the tastes and flavors, the smells and aromas, the textures and complexities of the food.  

But if my left brain was totally silent, I wouldn’t remember to go to the grocery store or pack my lunch or take food out of the freezer for dinner. Left to its own devices, my right hemisphere would go on a scavenger hunt with each perception of hunger.  

I arrived at the conclusion that it takes my whole mind to properly feed me. Here’s how the conversation between a hypothetical left hemisphere (LH) and right hemisphere (RH) goes when it comes to eating:  

RH: (feeling) gnawing in abdomen. (perception) hunger. (visualize) chips.   

LH: I know that feeling. It happens every day at this time. Let’s see, what did I bring to eat? I should have time for a lunch break at 11:30.  

RH: (feeling) gnawing. (perception) hunger.  

LH: Not right now. It’s always okay when I wait until 11:30.  

LH: Okay, it’s time to eat. Don’t eat all the chips. Why did I pack so many? I definitely packed too many. They have a lot of calories and fat. Eat the fruit. It’s better for me…  

RH: (perception) hungry. (sensations) crunchy. juicy. flavorful…  

LH: Tuna salad like Mom used to make.  

RH: (perception) not hungry.        

LH: I knew I packed too many chips.  That’s good, I can have more later if I want them.

Obviously, our brains have much more complex thoughts than this. But it is possible to quiet down, eventually even get rid of, the pesky thoughts about food while still engaging the left mind to make plans and have fond memories.    

After all of that reading and thinking I have arrived at this conclusion: Enjoyable eating happens from a balanced brain.

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.

New Year’s Resolution: Live Well

We’re fast approaching the New Year when many people make resolutions to turn over a new leaf, improving some aspect of their lives. Eating and exercise habits often top the list of resolutions. If they’re on your list, consider making this resolution each day of the new year:        

      Today, I will try to feed my body when I am hungry.* Your body needs refueling several times a day. Identify a pattern of meals and snacks that works for you.

      Today, I will try to be attentive to how foods taste and make me feel.*  Giving permission to eat allows you to slow down and enjoy the foods that bring you pleasure.

      Today, I will try to choose foods that I like and that make me feel good.*  Letting your appetite guide your food choices will ensure that your mouth is satisfied as well as your stomach.

       Today, I will try to respect my body’s signals of fullness.*  Eat as much as you want.  You’ll know when to quit—when you are pleasantly filled-up. 

       Today, I will try to find an enjoyable way to move my body.*  It’s easier to maintain an active lifestyle when you enjoy what you’re doing.

       Today, I will try to look kindly at my body and to treat it with love and respect.Your body is the way it is and it’s okay.  Wearing stylish clothing that fits, being well groomed and taking care of your looks projects a positive image to others and to yourself. 

Happy New Year!

 *Live Well Pledge (in bold) is an excerpt from Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight  © 2008 by Linda Bacon. May be freely distributed, provided that it remains in its entirety and this copyright message appears.

Overeating Hysteria

Before returning my borrowed copy to the library, I want to write a bit of a review about Dr. David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

Dr. Kessler explores the reasons why he thinks highly palatable food is so hard to resist. He describes “conditioned hypereating” as a state of mind similar to drug addiction. As former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, I’m sure Dr. Kessler understands the addiction model. Yet, he applies this model to food stating, “Fat, sugar, and salt change the brain.” Further, he asserts that the food industry is irresistibly combining these three ingredients into “hyperpalatable foods.”

Near the end of his book, Dr. Kessler candidly acknowledges his own history of overeating and weight cycling. “I have lost weight, gained it back, and lost it again—over and over and over. I have owned suits in every size,” he admits.

It seems reasonable, then, for Dr. Kessler to perceive food and eating as addictive. For those like Dr. Kessler who have banned certain foods or limited food quantity for the purpose of weight loss, thoughts about food become pervasive. Food seems like an addictive substance and eating seems like an addictive behavior.

A more accurate explanation lies in the recent dramatic discoveries about how the human brain and body function together to influence food choices. The primal need for food is very well regulated. The human brain responds to hunger by stimulating food seeking behavior, finding pleasurable food and eating until the body senses that it has had enough. Scientists describe this response as a balance between the homeostatic and hedonic systems.

Focused on his attack on the food industry, Dr. Kessler has skipped the brain science as well as the behavioral science on the subject of food and eating. He is stuck on the same old ideas of hyper-regulating and hyper-resisting.

The title of the book is the first clue that his ideas are off-track. After all, everybody’s appetite is satiable; and control is not the answer.

The Cruise Mentality

You might wonder why the topic of a cruise comes up right now when the temperatures have barely dipped below freezing. Shouldn’t we wait to dream of going on a cruise until the dead of winter, when the mercury falls below zero and goes into a holding pattern? The thought of a cruise comes to mind because of the upcoming season of food. Let me explain.

About three years ago, I was preparing to go on a cruise—my one and only excursion on an ocean liner. I heard words of caution from nearly everyone. The advice was not about being sure to use enough sunscreen, nor was it a tried and true cure for motion sickness.

The main thing on everyone’s mind was the FOOD. There’s so much of it and it is all so GOOD! And it was true—there were gourmet restaurants serving six-course dinners every evening, round-the-clock buffets, sandwich shops by the pool, and even a sushi bar.

After that trip, I coined the term “the cruise mentality” to refer to a way of thinking when you find yourself in the midst of an abundance of food. This is a great time of year to adopt this mindset. From the stashes of Halloween candy (okay, maybe that’s not really delicious but there usually is a lot of it), to the Thanksgiving feast and leftovers, to just about every day in December, good food—familiar and delicious—abounds.

Why would an abundance of food ever be a problem? The trouble is not with too much good food but from the rules about what and how much to eat. Categories of good foods and bad foods; portions in easy-to-remember dimensions (size of a deck of cards; size of your palm–wait, does that include my fingers?; no bigger than a tennis ball; etc); warnings about harmful food combinations–all these rules lead to eating anxiety.

Be assured, it is possible to be calm around food, even when it’s plentiful and scrumptious. Here’s how:

  1. Begin by giving yourself permission to eat anything you want.
  2. Select the foods that are most appealing. Take plenty—it’s important for your plate to look pleasing and generous.
  3. Savor every bite until you have had enough.
  4. Stop eating knowing there is plenty of deliciousness whenever you are hungry again.

 “The cruise mentality” assures you that you know what and how much to eat in all situations, even when there is an abundance of appetizing food. Trust yourself and, by all means, enjoy!