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.

It’s Time To Talk About It

A billboard on my drive to work has a new advertisement for a local coffee shop. It features their signature coffee mug with a tape measure around its middle and suggests you buy their super-skinny latte to help you with your new year’s resolution. Funny thing–I have that very same coffee mug and I like it because my hand can grasp the middle indentation of the mug more easily. I would never have connected a slimming message to its shape. Not until the billboard…

We live in a culture saturated with body image messages specifically designed to make you critical of your body. So what’s the harm in that? The fact is, body dissatisfaction is the most powerful and consistent precursor of unhealthy body-related behaviors.  Not just eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) but also problematic eating behaviors (starving, bingeing, purging), cosmetic surgery and extreme exercising. The list goes on…low body self-esteem is linked to depression, anxiety and sexual dissatisfaction.

Millions of people are affected. We have a count of those who are diagnosed with an eating disorder: 10 million females and 1 million males have anorexia or bulimia, and 15 million have binge eating disorder.

In an effort to raise awareness of eating disorders, MSU is hosting daily events next week across campus:

  • Media Monday–February 22–“America the Beautiful” will be shown at 7 pm in Parlor C, MSU Union.
  • Take Your Body Back Tuesday–February 23–Powerful evening of sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences that surround the topic of body image and the impossible standards of beauty and weight in our culture. 7-9 pm Wonders Hall Kiva. You may submit a letter to in advance of the program.
  • Wednesday without Worry–February 24–Enjoy food and celebrate yourself! Twix bars with a message will be handed out on campus all day.
  • Trash Talk NO MORE Thursday–February 25–Break free from the language of fat that is so common. Events around campus will promote positive self-talk. The Gallery at Snyder-Philips from 4:30 to 7 pm.

Visit the NEDA website for more information about Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

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.

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.

Form an alliance-me, myself, and I

There’s a big media world out there and most of it wants you to feel bad about yourself. Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries net billions of dollars a year by making us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads are airbrushed and touched up to show bodies that set impossible ideals. TV shows cast women with bodies not often found in nature to play the roles of fun-loving characters. In our media saturated world, how do you protect yourself from media messages and becoming your own worst critic?

Self-talk–those little conversations you have with yourself either in your head or out loud–is very influential. These dialogues are often negative and self-critical. In her book, Feeding the Hungry Heart, Geneen Roth says, “No one responds (well) to rejection-not a child, not your body. You have been filled with loathing at the sight of your arms, neck, face for years-and it hasn’t given you a different body. Rejection and loathing do not lead to change.”

“Chatter” is the term Karen Koenig uses to describe negative self-talk in her book, The Rules of Normal Eating. To turn off the chatter, Koenig suggests writing down the things you hear yourself say that run counter to normal eating and body acceptance. “Remember that chatter is nothing more than your irrational beliefs on speakerphone,” she said. Koenig advises, “Take each line of chatter and replace it with a rational thought or belief. Proclaim the new belief loudly and proudly.”

Here are some examples:

  • Irrational chatter: If I eat what I like, I’ll never stop eating. Reframed positive self-talk: I can stop eating and I will-when I’m satisfied and no longer hungry.
  • Irrational chatter: I’m too fat-just look at those hips! Reframed positive self-talk: I am a woman with natural curves. My accomplishments have nothing to do with the size of my hips.
  • Irrational chatter: No one will find me attractive if I’m fat.  Reframed positive self-talk: I am attractive because of who I am.

As contradictory as it seems, acceptance actually helps move you toward the transformations in lifestyle that you want to make. In the words of Carl Rogers, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.”

Dieting and the Weight Gain of Americans

Lincoln University has caused quite a stir. An exercise class in their curriculum is necessary for graduation only for their students of size. Now there is nothing wrong with an exercise class, but why is it a requirement only for students with a BMI over 30? Can the need for exercise be determined by a number on the scale? Or is the intent to help these students lose weight?

Helping someone lose weight may be well-intended but in reality, the notion that his or her body is unacceptable is damaging. Many experts hold the opinion that weight loss attempts, whether self-imposed or institution-imposed, cause weight gain. Repeat often enough with large numbers of people and dieting just may lead to a weight gain epidemic.

One of the first scientific studies to look at this issue was led by Ancel Keys. In 1946, Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota conducted experiments on 32 young men. This study is referred to as the Minnesota Starvation Study for a reason. The men were underfed enough to induce weight loss. They were observed for signs and symptoms related to insufficient food. The point of the experiment was to determine how to re-nourish them. One phenomenon that surprised everyone—most of the men ended up weighing more than they did prior to the caloric restriction. Six of the men gained nearly 10 additional pounds of body fat.

Fast forward sixty years or so and we are still trying to pinpoint exactly why this happens. Study after study shows the association between dieting (any behavior undertaken with the intent of losing weight) and subsequent weight gain but we have yet to determine the reason.

Researchers Herman and Polivy, in 1980, coined the term “restrained eating” to mean chronic dieting. They noted that chronic dieters were unable to keep to their diets despite concern with weight. Dieting behavior was accompanied by occasional lapses of restraint. They and other researchers described restrained eaters as very motivated but rather unsuccessful with weight loss.

In the intervening decades, many studies comparing the behavior of restrained and unrestrained eaters have taken place. Researchers have determined that, when presented with food cues, restrained eaters have stronger urges to eat than do unrestrained eaters. Pleasurable thoughts about food guide restrained eaters’ behavior despite their weight loss goals. Unrestrained eaters are less sensitive to food cues and more likely to follow their internal sense of hunger.

In a society where dieting messages are ubiquitous, how can you dodge the bullet?

  •         Accept your natural weight—never start the down-again, up-again weight cycle.
  •         Look kindly at your body and treat it with respect.
  •         Do the same for others.
  •         Identify a pattern of meals and snacks that works for you—then follow through with appetizing foods.