EnlightenU Nutrition Consulting, LLC

Enlightening You about Food and Nutrition

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Health Halos…A Culprit for Overeating?

healthy crepesI was very amused with this ad in the window of an ice cream parlor during my recent vacation.  It is interesting to me how we can be so “health-conscious” in America, yet continue to struggle with increasing waistlines.  While buzz words such as natural, organic, whole wheat, low fat, gluten free, non-GMO are intended to guide the health-conscious consumer to simple healthy solutions, it seems we just continue to eat more – not less.  Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon from Cornell University have researched this paradox and describe a “health-halo” effect when foods are labeled in this way.  Their research indicates that consumers underestimate how much they are eating and end up increasing their overall calorie consumption.  See article here.

This phenomenon is hardly new in our culture.  I can vividly recall the “Snack Well” era which is another great example of this health halo effect.  Back in the late 80’s, eliminating fat in foods was the solution to America’s increasing waist line.  Therefore, non-fat foods such as Snack Well cookies, Entenmanns pastries, and a slew of nonfat versions of cheese, salad dressings, etc. filled the grocery stores.  Misguided consumers believed that if you eliminated fat in food, you would lose weight and be healthy.  When that didn’t work, carbohydrates were suggested as the culprit for our health problems.  Today, branding foods to help guide the consumer to healthy food options seem to continue to confuse consumers.

When an individual is trying to manage their weight and health outcomes, it is vital to recognize that “eating healthier” doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual has created a caloric deficit that prevents weight gain or result in weight loss.  Instead, staying aware of portions and internal cues versus judging food – not as “good” or “bad” or an opportunity to “indulge” – can help reduce mindless eating.

Remember, eating doesn’t need to be so difficult.

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Finding Peace with Food Through Mindful Eating

Does anyone remember the Paul Harvey radio show? Well, I certainly do. My father was a huge fan and listening to Paul Harvey’s storytelling while gathered around the table for lunch just went hand-in-hand for us.  In fact, our family ritualistically surrounded the dinner table for meals in our small, quaint kitchen in Nebraska.  Although we would listen intently to the Paul Harvey news at lunch, there were no other distractions at meals.  No talking on the phone – for one thing there were no cell phones at the time.  In fact, there weren’t even cordless phones. We didn’t have a television in our kitchen. Another thing I don’t believe anyone had back then.

There were no “superfoods” at our meals. We ate whatever my mom prepared, whether that was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, fried egg sandwiches or just plain leftovers. And, we were thankful…for the food, for the time together, and the time to just take a break in the day.

My experience eating mindfully began before “mindful eating” was even defined in our culture. Growing up in a food environment that emphasized regular family meals taught me to appreciate good cooking, food and time with family.

And now for “The Rest of the Story”

Sadly, this harmonious meal time didn’t stay so sweet and peaceful.  External cues from society that normalized dieting, “eating on the run”, and “good” vs “bad” foods increased as I ventured off to college and the working world. Lunch was no longer peacefully enjoying my meal while listening to the velvety voice of Paul Harvey. Instead, I was running off to get a large frozen yogurt and popcorn (because these were nonfat and “good for you” at the time), then eating at my desk while working on the computer. Evening meals ended up being some “low-fat” frozen meal conveniently heated in the microwave and then mindlessly eating in front of the television.

Coincidentally, I couldn’t understand how I continued to gain weight. I thought I was eating right.  Eating continued to become so chaotic, cycling between restricting and over-eating; struggling with persistent weight gain; and, continuing to erode away my pleasure with food.

I began to obsess about what to do?  So, I exercised more and ate better. After some time (and the desire to make a career switch), I decided to go back to school and study nutrition. Clearly, I thought, if I just knew more about nutrition, then I would get it right!  Well, I did get that Master’s degree in nutrition, and fortunately discovered my passion for physiology, food and nutrition. In fact, the education actually helped me break many of the diet rules that had sabotaged my enjoyment of food and eating. But, not even an advanced degree in nutrition could have changed my relationship with “how” I was eating.

I fondly remembered back to that time when it was so simple. I could eat food, enjoy my meals and not worry about what I was eating, calories or my weight.  Was that even possible anymore?

As my own family started to grow, I began to plan and insist on having family meals.  My husband and I sitting at the table with a 2-year old and a baby wasn’t the sweet and peaceful “Normal Rockwell” painting I remembered back from that dinner table in Nebraska.  But, we stuck with it.  Eating began to be more focused on “how” we were eating instead of “what”  we were eating.

Of course, I continued to try and provide good nutrition for our family at the meals.  But, it really wasn’t about the food.  I began to notice that I looked forward to planning, shopping, and preparing family meals with favorite family recipes and with foods we actually enjoyed!  We were thankful for the meal and setting apart the busyness of the day for each meal.  And…unintentionally, my weight dropped back to the point I was at before all the chaotic eating.

Fast forward about 15 years through a divorce; being a single parent; stress of a job; taking care of adolescents; and the list goes on. As I reflect back, mindful eating has been the cornerstone of health and nutrition for me. Finding a peaceful relationship with food, eating and weight has not included any specific foods or recipes. It has NOT been about following a diet or set of food rules. It has not been about eating less or more depending on how much I exercise (or don’t exercise). For me, eating mindfully has been a practice of staying aware of my body and giving myself permission to take time to eat. Whether having a family meal (even as a busy single parent); or, a meal alone, eating at the table without distractions has truly been an important behavior to stick with.  This has meant challenging judgment about food, and instead eat what I enjoy at meals, not what is the latest food or diet trend.

Of course, being a nutritionist, I enjoy preparing a variety of foods while keeping balanced nutrition in mind for my family.  But, if you asked anyone in my family, they would tell you there are no “forbidden foods” and “it’s just normal to have a family meal at the table.”

Recently, we had a young guest over for our evening meal. The table was set, as it is at every evening.  We began our meal with our usual centering of prayer.  As we talked about the day, enjoying our food together (with no cell phones or TV allowed), our guest commented about how different this meal was from her experience at home.  When I asked, “what seemed different?” She added that “it was very strange to sit at a table and eat.” Later in the meal, she continued to explain how  “there is so much noise at her house during meals” and “eating here is so pleasant.”  Awww…truly the joy of mindful, healthy eating!

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You are a Gift!

shutterstock_giftAs a dietitian, I meet people everyday who feel inadequate…about the way they look; that they don’t eat right; they don’t exercise the way they “should”; and consequently, aren’t a good enough mom, wife, daughter, etc.

My job description is to provide medical nutrition therapy to individuals. With a professional background helping people who struggle with eating disorders, I’ve learned first hand there really so much more to this complicated world of nutrition than the type or amount of carbs, fat and protein a person needs. Yes, my job is to help people navigate the toxic food environment we live in to prevent disease and live happy and healthy. But, more often, some of the work I do really is about challenging a toxic culture of perfectionism and black-and-white thinking around the issues of food, eating and weight.

To the notion that there is an “ideal model” of health and nutrition, I recently came across this passage in an old college book of mine, called “Priceless People”. This anonymous writing, titled “Unwrapping Gifts” is truly priceless and reminds us that we (and those we treat) are much more than the wrapping.

Unwrapping Gifts by Anonymous

People are gifts which are sent to us…wrapped.  Some are wrapped very beautifully. They are very attractive when we first see them. Some come in ordinary wrapping paper. Others have been mishandled in the mail. Once in awhile, there is a special delivery. Some persons are gifts which come very loosely wrapped, others very tightly.

But the wrapping is not the gift. It’s so easy to make this mistake.

Sometimes the gift is very easy to open up. Sometimes we need others to help. Is it because they are afraid? Maybe they have been opened up before and thrown away.

You are a person. So you are a gift, too. A gift to yourself, first of all. You have been given to yourself. Have you ever really looked inside the wrappings? Maybe you’ve never really seen the wonderful gift that you are. Could such a gift be anything but beautiful?

And you are a gift to other people. Are you willing to give yourself to others? Do others have to be contented with the wrappings? Never permitted to enjoy – you – the gift?

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Managing Emotional Eating

shutterstock_cravings2February is American Heart Month! Type the words “heart health” in Google and you get over 325 million tips and resources, all related to preventing or improving physical heart health. The thing is, most people already know what these are: eat more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, omega-3 fats…and exercise!

Unfortunately, my experience has been that so many people are really struggling with feeding their “hungry heart” rather than their stomach. Some of this is related to living in a society overly focused on competition and comparison, rather than self-care and compassion. Individuals of all ages and activity levels feel stigmatized for not meeting a certain standard, and often turn to food to comfort this pain.

And, what’s the solution to this problem? More diets. Diets are all about rules that initially provide a sense of control for the dieter, but also carry this message that having a weight problem means you lack what it takes to “follow the rules” and the cycle of shame, stress, defeat…and emotional eating continues.

Emotional eating is when an emotion triggers a person to eat, instead of the physical symptom of hunger. There are many misconceptions about emotional eating.  One of the biggest myths is that all emotional eating leads to overeating and weight gain. In fact, it is natural to eat for emotional reasons and still maintain your weight. For example, celebrations with family and friends often include special foods that we have an emotional relationship with.  Having birthday cake with friends, not because you are hungry, but because it feels good isn’t necessarily a prescription for overeating or weight gain.

So then, what’s the problem with emotional eating?  Emotional eating is a problem when it is out of control or contributes to more emotions, such as feelings of guilt or shame. When a person is out of touch with their feelings, and eats to comfort themselves or “stuff their feelings down”, it can result in overeating. When an individual engages in this behavior day after day, it is likely to result in weight gain. In a study published in the journal, Appetite, researchers from the University of Canterbury investigated how an individual’s perceptions about eating a food, like chocolate cake, influenced their motivation to maintain a healthy eating plan. They discovered that those who felt “guilty” after eating a piece of cake were more likely to sabotage their weight loss efforts than those who associated the cake with “celebration.”

Diets and having forbidden foods often make the problem worse. Dieters, or individuals with restricted eating patterns, are typically eating less than they need; less of the foods they enjoy; and, are chronically hungry.  When faced with stress or other emotions, the ability to maintain control of the restrained eating becomes intolerable for the individual who “gives in” and overeats. In these situations, the individual often eats quickly; is distracted; and, is disconnected from his or her internal cues. Feeling guilty and remorseful, the dieter tries harder to restrict the eating and the cycle continues.

So, what can you do to manage emotional eating?
Identify your triggers.  Keep a mood food diary and track information about your meals and snacks (including unplanned eating). Write down what you are eating, when you are eating, where you are eating, whom you are eating with, and how you are feeling at the time.  Many of my clients strongly object to keeping a journal for various reasons.  Taking time with a nutritionist or other health professional to discuss strategies to overcome those barriers may be key for you to take the first step in getting control of your emotional eating.

Don’t skip meals.  Feed yourself regularly while being mindful of balance, variety and moderation in your meal planning.

Eat whole foods.   Eating whole foods that you enjoy, on a regular basis, can help to balance out your mood and provide consistent energy during the day.

Develop alternative coping skills to manage your emotions.  Take a moment to create a list of activities you can use when emotions run high.  Things like calling a friend, gardening, going outdoors, reading, doing a puzzle are all examples. Many activities, such as these, result in the release of the chemicals in the brain that help us feel better.  I suggest that individuals have their list visible and easily available.  When you notice a trigger to use food for comfort, try one of the items from your list.  After 10 minutes, if the food is still beckoning you, try the 2nd activity for 10 minutes, and so on.  Usually if you make it to the 3rd activity, you will notice that the urge to eat is less.

Try Individual or group counseling.  Talking about your triggers, and getting support for planning healthy meals and snacks, may be the key to making the behavior changes that are needed.

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Making Peace with Food, Exercise and Weight

shutterstock_peace and foodFor many recreational or competitive female athletes, food seems to be the “fattening enemy.” Women often express their frustration that they “do all this exercise and are not losing weight” and wonder “what is the best diet?” The problem is that diets don’t work (or everyone who diets would be thin). They are certainly appealing, giving an illusion of control.  But sadly, the dieting cycle actually contributes to more distress. The good news is that making peace with food, exercise and weight is possible! Rediscover the joy and nourishment of eating by focusing on strategies that will help you optimize body composition and improve athletic performance.

Create a Small Calorie Deficit. Weight loss happens when there is a caloric deficit. Unfortunately, the body responds to a caloric deficit with a number of metabolic adaptations.  In the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Trexler, et al. summarize results from a number of studies indicating that the body’s response to hypocaloric diets is to increase hunger, conserve energy, and promote loss of lean body mass (LBM).  Consequently, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain ultimately result in long-term weight gain. To minimize these effects, it is recommended to utilize the smallest possible deficit, such as 10-15% of calories, to yield an average weight loss of 0.5 pound per week. For example, if you need 2000 calories to maintain your weight, create a 200-300 calorie deficit per day. This may decrease the rate of weight loss, but will also reduce unfavorable adaptations.

Manage Your Hunger.  There are many factors that affect hunger and appetite. Hunger is simply your body’s physical request for fuel, while appetite is a psychological urge for “what sounds good.” The biggest mistake made by weight conscious athletes is getting overly hungry and relying entirely on willpower to avoid eating too much. Unfortunately, many dieters skip breakfast, skimp on lunch, and blow it by “giving in” and overeating later in the day.  Giving yourself permission to eat enough at breakfast and lunch will help you control the amount of food your body needs.  Plan ahead by dividing your energy needs into about 3-5 meals/snacks and mindfully fuel up during the most active part of your day.

Increase Protein Intake.  Loss of LBM while trying to reduce body weight is obviously undesired. Research has indicated that resistance training along with sufficient protein intake will help preserve LBM during energy restriction. Increasing your intake of protein-containing foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and dairy products) will also promote satiety which delays the onset of hunger for the next meal. Protein needs vary individually, but in general, aim for about 20 grams of protein per meal or snack (20 grams of protein is the equivalent of a palm-sized serving of meat, pork or poultry; one cup of tofu; or 6 oz Greek yogurt with a couple tablespoons of almonds).

Improve Diet Quality. While I don’t recommend defining foods as “good” vs “bad”, changing your personal food environment will increase the likelihood that you will eat more nutrient dense foods regularly. Stocking up on fruits, vegetables, lean meats, wholesome carbohydrates, dairy, nuts, and seeds at home or at work will help fuel your workouts, decrease cravings and manage emotional eating. Each meal, try to balance your plate with a serving of lean protein, wholesome carbohydrates, and colorful veggies that will help you feel full and satisfied while providing important nutrients to help you exercise, train and perform at your best.