Category Archives: Eating

Preventing Childhood Obesity


If you read The Onion, you know it has a disturbing tendency to report things as they really are, with a bite. It does not disappoint with “Preventing Childhood Obesity.” It lists a mix of the sad and absurd, all with underlying facts, including:

  • Avoid buying unhealthy foods, such as anything marketed to the American consumer.
  • Set a good example by choking down a salad in front of your kids.
  • Make healthy tweaks to favorite dishes, cutting back on the salt, fat, and sugars that are the sole basis of their appeal.
  • Obesity has a large genetic component, so make an effort to only pass the slimmest of your genes onto your children.
  • Limit your child to one food a day that contains the word “Cheez.”
  • Help your child develop good diet and exercise habits by raising them in a different country.

Raising them in a different country may not help. Although US children are particularly hemmed in by reduced recess and gym activities in schools, more screen time, and more indoor activity in general than in previous decades, European children also see a dropoff in activity. And in some countries, notably in the Middle East, where outdoor conditions are hostile, prosperity has walked hand in hand with a dramatic reduction in activity, change in eating habits, and spike in diabetes – stark even by US standards.

But other factors represent opportunities for action. Avoid bringing packaged and processed foods into the home, for example. Packaged, processed foods often have lower nutritional value than whole foods prepared at home. Where they are used, it’s best to save them for treats or other small roles in the overall food pattern. Basic cooking skills serve anyone well, and kids love to help, so take a look at this list of age-appropriate kitchen tasks and delegate.

How you eat and move is the single greatest factor in how your kids will, so don’t ask them to do what you say (but not what you do). Try to keep those messages as consistent as possible – and discover ways to make salads and other wholesome foods more enjoyable. Yes, that may mean using less fat, salt, and sugar in cooking, but it also means using more spices and a wider variety of foods. And discovering new favorites.

Between work and the kids, when do I go to the gym?
September Is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
How to Use Your Baby as Exercise Equipment
10 Ways to Raise Healthier Kids
Envy for Kids’ School Lunches
Halloween Party Foods
Have Some Fun with Your Food
Burger and Fries…?
A Better Replacement

The Cost of Getting Lean

See full size at the link below

Many people begin an exercise program excited to “look like their goal body” — often a celebrity or model. The fitness industry and mass media promote this kind of goal heavily, in the way they market imagery and make claims for the recommendations they give, but they often hand-wave the realities behind the photos. Even splashy articles describing how an actor got in shape for a superhero role are often fuzzy about the sheer number of hours in the gym, the personal-trainer assistance, and the food-preparation support the actor gets. Working out — along with rigid eating — is a full-time job for months to prepare for those roles.

This infographic from Precision Nutrition gives a great breakdown of the trade-offs of going leaner and leaner, as well as offering a handy cheat sheet for the kinds of lifestyle changes that support the different levels of leanness. (I don’t recommend pursuing that first “unhealthy” category, though! And in the second, ultra-lean “unhealthy” category, competitors and paid models achieve that level of leanness intermittently during the year, rather than maintaining it all the time.)

Healthy Eating Is About “How Much”

Alex Viada Diet Tip

Dieting tip: Peanut butter and similar foods are very calorie dense. Use a teaspoon rather than a tablespoon to help control portions.

Every day we see claims for super foods and “healthy options,” but foods that are healthful can still be eaten in excess. As a practical matter, that is more difficult with lean protein and fiber-rich foods, because they tend to leave you feeling satisfied and full with fewer calories. (That’s why people say “I cut out sugar and didn’t even have to count calories.”) But even the most “virtuous” foods can be prepared with enough fats, in particular, to make the calorie count skyrocket.

When dishing out nut butters, the serving size may say “tablespoons,” but tableware is rarely exactly the same size as measuring spoons, and you can easily stack a tablespoon (or much more!) of peanut butter on a teaspoon. Doubling your serving of broccoli won’t make much difference; doubling your serving of nuts or nut butters (which looks small to start with) adds hundreds of calories. It’s also a big help to use a scale to measure calorie-dense foods, instead of just spoons and cups. Be careful out there!

Image: Photo by Alex Viada of Complete Human Performance.

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Googly-eyed breakfast by Angie Naron

Over the last few decades, claims have grown up around breakfast — notably that people who eat “a good breakfast” have all kinds of good outcomes, like easier weight control and better metabolic function. There isn’t a lot of great science on this, because studies are notoriously bad at food tracking, but there’s also no great evidence that breakfast has magical qualities by itself. Large observational studies have shown a benefit when breakfast was a regular feature of a person’s day, but people who are careful to have “a good breakfast” may do a lot of other things that keep them in good health, too. Short-term studies have not shown smoking-gun issues from skipping it.

Eating breakfast can make good choices easier for some people, though.

Breakfast Can Help You Make Good Nutrition Choices If…

— You just like having a meal in the morning, large or small — especially if missing it on hectic days leaves you feeling bad or frustrated. Finding a way to protect that meal can make the rest of your day go better.

— You exercise in the morning. Whether you eat before or after, or have a small snack before and more food after (the timing is personal), moving more means eating more, and people often feel more comfortable when they eat at a time close to their workout.

— You work in an environment with a lot of empty-calorie options hanging around, whether it’s nearby coffee shops or donuts or vending machines in the break room. We often eat simply because food is present. Already having some food in you (especially satiating, filling protein and fiber) or packing a nutritious snack can help you resist “because it’s there” eating.

— You try to skip breakfast to “save calories” but end up feel deprived and hungry. If skipping breakfast leaves you grazing all morning, you might feel more alert and happier with a nutritious snack first thing.

– You have medical issues. If you have diabetes, of course, a dietitian can help you choose foods and meal times as part of your treatment. Other medical conditions can also have food and timing implications — work with your healthcare team if you’re under regular care.

The Traditional Morning Breakfast Doesn’t Matter If…

— You feel fine and ready to get going on your day once you roll out of bed.

— You’ve comfortably adopted a “feeding window” approach to eating that has you “break your fast” at a different time of day. (People may lecture you about this. Tell them, “I do have breakfast — just later.”)

— You may actually feel worse when you eat right after waking. You may be fine with “nontraditional” breakfast foods, starting with a very small snack, or just eating after you’ve gotten a start on the day. It’s worth keeping an eye out for health or stress issues that may be involved, but if that coast is clear, it’s down to what works for you.

— You think breakfast means only cereal, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and pastries. There’s no reason to limit those foods to a specific time of day, if you like them, nor any reason to privilege them as first foods of the day. A turkey sandwich is also a good breakfast, and diners serve “breakfast all day” for a (delicious) reason!

It’s Your Overall Pattern That Matters Most

The breakfast issue is similar to the claim that “small meals boost the metabolism.” Some people feel better with lots of small meals — or when they eat breakfast. Some people do fine — good energy level, able to do the activities they care about, able to stick with a nutritious eating pattern — with one or a few big meals, with or without breakfast. (Oh, and if you study someone making an abrupt change in pattern, they may get outsize results.) Humans are highly adaptable, and the major factors driving weight are simply how much you eat and move. So keep an eye out for the ways that make it easiest for you to make the choices you want to make.

Image: Angie Naron created this wonderful breakfast as part of a challenge issued by Amy Sedaris. You can see other entries at the Flickr group.

Are Energy Bars for Women Different?


Men don’t need to avoid “women’s” bars. Some of these bars do emphasize nutrients that “women need,” like folic acid, but while women can often use a boost of some of these ingredients, men can use them, too. The biggest difference between bars targeted at men and women is that women’s bars tend to be a touch smaller — as are women’s average calorie requirements.

Energy bars marketed to women often just sound more delicious. They are somewhat more likely to offer more flavors, to name flavors after baked goods, and to emphasize special ingredient categories like vegan, all-natural, and gluten-free. As these products have become mainstream, changes like this have helped their makers build a market beyond the adventure athlete by making flavors and textures appealing to the people who do the majority of the household shopping.

Energy bars run the gamut from pretty good quick hits of nutrition to basically treats, but they’re a fruit-and-nut treat rather than a cake-or-cookie treat. (So-called “protein bars” tend to have more protein, of course, and still have the carbs, so they contain more calories overall.)

If you’re tempted by chips or donuts during the day, it may help to have a couple of energy bars at your desk or in your backpack. (If your office stocks a snack cabinet with chips and cookies, suggest they carry nutrition bars, too — some good options are Kind, Luna, Builder, and Lara bars.) They are a handy, easy-to-eat option for long walks or day trips. Most are about 180 to 300 calories, and most offer a fairly modest serving of protein (6 to 10 grams) and a touch of fiber (about what you’d get from a piece of whole fruit). They are better for you than an actual candy bar, but I wouldn’t use them as meal replacements.

So what if all we have are my girlfriend’s women’s bars? Are they safe? Oh, you know they’re safe to eat. Worst-case scenario, you might want to eat two of them, because they’re small, but ask permission first. When it comes to wonderful combinations of nuts and dried fruit pressed into bars that taste like pie, your girlfriend might not feel like sharing.

Image: Cartoon by William Haefeli, in the New Yorker

Orthorexia and Other Imbalances


Orthorexia is a term recently coined (by physician Steven Bratman) to refer, most simply, to people whose rigid dietary rules are harmful to them. People with orthorexia may be preoccupied with the purity of their food (or of their bodies). Depending on the extent of their rules, they may find it impossible to share meals with “outsiders,” or in restaurants.

Orthorexia is not just picky eating. Children may reject a food initially but usually accept it when offered a dozen times or so. Some people don’t get that repetition (or succeed in refusing it), and that can be a source of frustration to them and to people around them. But the foods picky eaters do eat are often very mainstream – they’re easy to find and don’t have an ideology.

Orthorexia starts to creep in when the food pattern has rigid restrictions justified by health or ethical claims. This goes far beyond vegetarian or even vegan food patterns; orthorexia involves detailed rules about the source or growth of the food, claims about its historical significance, or purity. Most important to the idea of orthorexia, though, is compulsion or distress. Dr Bratman proposes questions, including:

  • Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
  • Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
  • Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
  • Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
  • Does your diet socially isolate you?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

We should all be aware of what we’re eating, and maybe do some advance planning and make some rules for ourselves. But look at the overall sense: these questions refer to distress, to a sense of being ruled by rules, to isolation. Moreover, the rules may not have any real relationship to health or nutrition. Does this sound familiar? It sure has a lot in common with crash dieting.

Fad Diets and Fearmongering

The fitness and health markets contain a lot of faddish claims and products, and few so obvious as the weird diet. Frightening claims about food development or farming techniques, nonscientific (but science-y sounding) claims about what humans have “evolved” to prefer, and celebrity promotion can all lead to some pretty strange, and possibly harmful food patterns.

You may not be at risk for orthorexia, but you may feel pressure to try dietary changes that make you feel some of the unhappiness that Dr Bratman discusses. Changing our eating patterns to something that supports our health has to go hand in hand with figuring out a way to make the pattern an enjoyable one. That can involve enlisting family members to join us, looking for ways to make favorite dishes a little more nutritious, or building “treat” and socializing windows into our weekly eating. Make life better by making healthful eating a habit that works, instead of a taskmaster than drains you.

Image from LA Times article, “For those with orthorexia, diet can never be ‘pure’ enough.”

Losing Weight Is Not Enough


In “Weight Loss Doesn’t Always Lead to Happiness,” Ed Cara gives a nice overview of some of the challenges around the weight-loss experience and the efforts of healthcare providers and others to persuade people to exercise more and eat better. Weight loss isn’t magic, but if you keep getting bombarded with messages that it is, and manage to lose a bunch of weight, reality can make it pretty tough to care about keeping it off. In the process, we lose sight of ways people can address quality of life more meaningfully.

How Can I Beat the Odds?

The best way to get around the happiness problem is not to expect losing some weight to make you happy all by itself. Fortunately, the well-being benefit that we claim for having healthy eating and exercise habits comes not from meeting a specific weight-loss goal but simply from eating better and being more active, which boost energy, improve sleep, and get the body working more smoothly. Making it easier to stick with those habits is likely to help you more than a particular number on the bathroom scale.

— Make daily activity a priority, even if some days it’s just a couple of short walks.
Get started with something that sounds easy (like 1 less sugar packet in your coffee) — you have plenty of time to refine your plan.
Make checklists, and check items off. A calendar where you make a tick mark on each day you exercise is also a simple — and effective — help.
— Build some activity into socializing with friends to make it fun rather than “just exercise.”
— Just go outside.

Whatever you want to do, take a step toward it.

Image: A fitness trainer’s business card.

Low-Carb Blues

Angry cat in a sink

Carb cycling means eating different amounts of carbohydrate day to day — a common pattern is high-fat/low-carbs on rest days and high-carbs/low-fat on “training days.” Many people find it easier to eat fewer calories to support a fat-loss goal if they eat less carbohydrate, but tough workouts may feel too tough when they eat low carb all the time. The idea of carb cycling is to bunch up carbs close to the workouts for energy, but to otherwise eat a lower-carb food pattern. This eating pattern works well for some people — I’ve heard, “I love it because I always have a treat to look forward to.” That’s the key to sticking with the plan: having a pattern that supports your goals AND that you enjoy. Or at least don’t actively dislike.

In some ways, carb cycling mirrors how we already eat — it’s just planned out in advance. People often eat differently day to day, whether because they’re socializing here and there, celebrating with a special meal, attending an event, or just not getting to the grocery store. If you’re trying to eat fewer calories, it can be a struggle to accommodate social events or special-occasion meals in particular, and a carb-cycling approach can help by building in “eat more of this” days.

What Is Going on with That Cat?

This cat picture is a favorite of mine, and I have certainly had days like this, but I was a bit surprised to see this message added to it recently: “HOW I FEEL ON LOW-CARB DAY.” People have subtle to substantial differences in how they feel with different amounts of carbohydrate in their diets — for some people, there’s an adjustment period when cutting carbohydrate, and for others it just never feels good to go low. If that cat shows how you feel on “low-carb day,” then carb-cycling probably isn’t for you — after all, it would mean feeling this way around half the time. Changing your eating patterns can take time and require you to do some challenging work around your feelings and expectations about food, but being miserable is not sustainable.

You can also try a simpler form of “zig-zag food pattern,” varying your calories; eat the same basic proportions throughout the week, with more calories on more-active days and fewer on less-active days. This is a good way to practice associating eating more with being more active. Practicing that pattern can be a big help if disaster strikes and an injury knocks you off your routine, as well as accommodating different eating options during the normal run of things.

“OK, I’ll program zig-zag calories into my food tracker.” Unfortunately, few food trackers have this feature. A similar approach that is easier to do with a food tracker is eating carefully 6 days a week and having a “cheat day.” (I don’t love the “cheat” terminology, but that’s a common term for it. Why not “treat day,” “social day,” or “party day”?) Your food tracker may not support “treat day” (see how nice that looks?) gracefully, but it keeps the variation down to one day a week. Whatever pattern you choose, it needs to be something that that fits into your lifestyle, lets you do most things the way you like to do them, and supports your goals.

Here are some ideas for choosing a sustainable food pattern:
Where Do I Begin?
One Weird Trick?
Nine Simple Weight-Loss Tips
Does Active Logging Work?