Good Food / Bad Food

New York Magazine recently featured a piece on orthorexia nervosa, the unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy or “correct” foods. The term isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and some are skeptical that it has diagnostic criteria unique enough to warrant a separate designation, but I think it can be helpful in describing a specific kind of extreme attitude towards healthy eating.

beet leaves | MindBodyPlateWhile the behaviors of orthorexia may overlap with anorexia or bulimia, it’s the motivation behind the behaviors that are different. In the case of anorexia or bulimia, the underlying desire is to achieve thinness or weight loss; in the case of orthorexia, the desire is strictly (and paradoxically) to achieve optimal health.

So it doesn’t surprise me that those who are recovered from eating disorders are particularly susceptible to orthorexia. After overcoming a dangerously rigid set of unhealthy eating behaviors, it makes sense that one might get caught up in an equally rigid set of “healthy” ones.

there are no bad foods | MindBodyPlateWhether it’s in the DSM or not, I’m glad orthorexia is getting this kind of attention in the mainstream media. Ferocious commitment to dietary health is widely accepted and even encouraged in our culture, especially as we become more and more preoccupied with the “war on obesity”. As such, it’s important that we encourage mindfulness and dietary moderation with equal fervor.

The slippery slope of orthorexia is exactly why I spend ample time with my clients exploring how we improve our health & wellness and make more positive food choices without relying on the labeling of certain foods as inherently ‘bad’. As soon as we label foods good or bad, we enable the kind of extreme thinking that can lead to orthorexia.

foods are not inherently bad | MindBodyPlateWhat are your impressions of orthorexia nervosa? Should it be considered its own eating disorder? I’d love to know what you think.

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I don’t believe in portion control

That’s right – I don’t believe in portion control.

Now hold on a second, don’t go running to the Cheesecake Factory just yet. I’m certainly not saying we should consume volumes of food irrespective of our dietary needs, it’s just that I’ve got a bone to pick with the concept.

throw away your food scales - MindBodyPlate

Abandoned food scales.

It’s the phrase that gets under my skin, more than anything: portion… control.

To suggest that a person practice portion control infers that they are inherently out of control and in need of some external constraint. As if, left to their own devices, they would inevitably gorge themselves to death. As if they would be foolish to trust themselves.

The irony is, the more stringent we are with imposing these external constraints, these portion controls, the more likely we are to binge uncontrollably. It’s as if the approach itself has some sort of sinister boomerang effect. The more you think you need portion control, and the more you try to wield it, the more likely you are to need it.

Why is this? A big part of it, I believe, is that forced restriction separates us even further from the possibility of intuitive eating in a culture where we are already so desensitized to our hunger and satiety cues.

Now for those suffering from food addiction, it may be the case that externally imposed restrictions serve as helpful training wheels, for a time. But sooner or later, if you really wanna feel the wind in your hair, you gotta take off those training wheels and trust that you’re not going to fall. I’m not saying this will be easy, by any means. Cultivating a relationship with your intuitive appetite is just like any new relationship: exhilarating, frightening, confusing, and requiring time, attention, and serious commitment.

But it’s easy enough to begin. Start with making a habit of checking in with yourself every few minutes before, during, and after you eat. That’s all – just check in. And once you’ve become accustomed to making that kind of space, you can start to ask yourself more specific questions.

For instance, “How hungry am I on a scale of 0-10, with zero being not hungry at all and ten being starving?” You might even practice getting curious about what kind of hunger you are experiencing (Physical? Emotional?) or what it is specifically that you’re hungry for ( Lasagna? A hug?).

And while hunger and fullness seem to be on opposite sides of the same spectrum, they most certainly are not. Though their interplay suggests otherwise, they exist on two different spectrums entirely. You can be physically full but still hungry for more, not very full but lacking in appetite. And therefore, you must also ask yourself, “How full am I on a scale of 0-10, with zero being not full at all and 10 being uncomfortably full?”

Hunger Fullness Scale - MindBodyPlateAnd you must keep checking in with these questions, not just before you chow down, but also after the first few bites, and again after the next few, and again and again. What seems tedious at first will, over time, become more second nature as you build a bridge toward intuitive eating.

“That’s a lot of work,” you may be thinking, and you’re absolutely right. I’ll probably continue to work on it for the rest of my life. But if you can learn to tap in to the inherent wisdom of your body, to its highly tuned sense of exactly what and how much it needs to stay in balance, you’ll never have to diet, restrict, or use “portion control” ever again. And that seems well worth the effort.

 

Balancing Omega-3 & Omega-6

We hear again and again about the benefits of essential fatty acids in the diet, particularly omega-3s. But what’s the difference between omega-3 and omega-6? If you prefer visual learning like me, you’ll love this explanatory info-graphic, which I based on an article by Andrew Weil, M.D. with complimentary research from The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC. omega-3 omega-6 balance infographic - MindBodyPlateCheck out the two pie charts at the bottom: the left is what our Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio should look like (1/1), and the right shows a fairly generous average ratio for a Western diet (15/1). Yikes! We’re pretty far off, and yet it’s so important that we strive to lower that ratio. In their academic article, The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids, Simopoulos explains that a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio is effective in “reducing the risk of many of the chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies, as well as in the developing countries, that are being exported to the rest of the world.” In particular:

  • “In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.”
  • “A ratio of 2.5/1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer.”
  • “The lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio in women with breast cancer was associated with decreased risk.”
  • “A ratio of 2-3/1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.”
  • “A ratio of 5/1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.”

The clinical benefits of increased omega-3 can also be seen in:

  • Heart Disease
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Brain Trauma
  • Chronic Pain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Skin Disorders
  • Fertility
  • Fat Loss

Because the western diet is overflowing with omega-6 fatty acids, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is simple: just eat more omega-3s. Eat more salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish. Or buy a high-quality fish or krill oil (mine is a liquid that is extra purified for safety and tastes like lemon). Vegetarian sources such as flax seeds and walnuts are wonderful too, just remember the body has to go through the extra step of converting them to EPA and DHA (the two critical kinds of omega-3s). How much is enough? Well, in a lecture I attended by Dr. Barry Sears, he gave the following guidelines:

  • Everyone would benefit from: 2-2.5 g (2,000-2,500 mg) per day
  • For those suffering from obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease: 5 g (5,000 mg) per day
  • For those battling cancer and chronic pain: 7.5 g (7,500 mg) per day
  • For those with neurological disease: >10 g (at least 10,000 mg) per day

Ideally, one would consume a fish oil or omega-3 supplement in conjunction with anti-inflammatory meals, moderate exercise, and stress reduction techniques. As always, remember that I am not a medical professional nor a registered dietitian. Please consult your physician before making any abrupt changes to your diet. References: Simopoulos, AP (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 56(8), 365-79. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909

Pesticides in Produce

Let’s face it: it’s not always convenient (or economical) to buy all organic produce all the time. Luckily, the Environmental Working Group publishes an annual rating of non-organic foods with the most and the least amounts of pesticide residue. As a part of their Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, each year the EWG publishes two lists that can help guide our purchasing choices: the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.

*trumpets* Friends, I give you my versions of this year’s lists. *confetti*

Feel free to print them out and stick ’em on your refrigerator! They’ll serve as a good reminder to, say, always shell out for the organic strawberries, or to give yourself a break if your only option is a conventionally grown eggplant. I for one tend to steer clear of any produce in the Dirty Dozen that’s not organic. But when it comes to avocados, onions, cabbage, and other foods listed on the Clean Fifteen, I don’t sweat it as much.

EWG's Dirty Dozen

For the last three years, the EWG has included a ‘Plus’ category with their Dirty Dozen; this ranking highlights foods that didn’t quite make the cut yet were found to be consistently contaminated with trace amounts of pesticides hazardous to the human nervous system. According to the EWG, if you eat a lot of kale, collards, or hot peppers, you’d be wise to buy organic.

EWG's Clean Fifteen

You’ll notice that many foods in the Clean Fifteen have thick, protective skins or tightly packed leaves to help keep pesticide residues out. You may also have noticed that sweet potatoes are in the Clean Fifteen, whereas regular old spuds are up there in the Dirty Dozen – interesting! If you’re looking to avoid GMOs, be aware that most Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, as is some yellow squash, zucchini, and sweet corn.

As with most diet-related issues, the whole organic-versus-non-organic thing can be overwhelming and confusing. Remember to be kind to yourself and to approach with flexibility. After all, one thing that is far more dangerous than a non-organic strawberry is to worry incessantly about every single morsel you put in your mouth.

The Pendulum Effect

Foucault pendulum hanging in Milan’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy of Ben Ostrowsky.

Foucault pendulum hanging in Milan’s National Museum of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy of Ben Ostrowsky.

I find myself talking about pendulums pretty frequently. Why pendulums? That Foucault could use one to demonstrate the earth’s rotation is pretty cool, but I usually reference them because they serve as the perfect metaphor for so much of what I talk about with my clients. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton was talking about the physical laws of motion, but I find it interesting to view our mental, behavioral, and even physical shifts through this same lens.

The universe is always seeking balance, often in ways beyond our control and outside our periphery.

When you pull a pendulum really far in one direction and let go, what happens? You can bet that it will swing really far back in the other direction. A big shift begets another big shift. And we can find this rule of balance playing out in our day to day (or month-to-month, as it were)…

A Tale of Two Months

February was an extremely stressful, obligation-filled month for me, jam-packed with intense emotional growth and periods of distressing uncertainty.

In 28 short days, I turned 30, celebrated my partner’s birthday, celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, juggled multiple jobs alongside 20 hours a week of yoga teacher training, hosted my parents during their visit from California, became a certified yoga teacher, braved the New York City rental market to find us a dream apartment (after our first one fell through), packed up our lives in boxes, moved to a whole new borough, and then unpacked those very same boxes, all amid freezing weather and one winter storm after another.

Needless to say, by the time March rolled around, I felt tired. In fact, I found myself struggling to stay motivated. Midway through the month, I even started to get a little down on myself. What was happening to me? Why did I feel so lazy? Then it hit me:

Well, DUH.

Of course I feel like I’m swimming upstream against a current of relentless lethargy. Of course it’s all I can do to go through the motions and cover the essentials. Of course all I want to do is eat and drink and enjoy the casual company of good friends. Of course my immune system is compromised. Of course I watched all three seasons of The Borgias in two weeks.

This is my body’s way of creating balance, of carving out a period of rest and recovery. This is my body’s response to February. This is the pendulum effect in action.

Macrobiotics* and the Yin-Yang of Food

Have you ever had too many salty foods in a short period of time and found yourself wrestling with intense cravings for sugar not long thereafter? This is your body seeking balance through appetite, and it’s a pretty obvious example of that pendulum swing.

Turns out, there’s an entire dietary approach that concerns itself with balancing the energies of food. The Macrobiotic diet pulls from ancient Chinese philosophy, asserting that every food item falls somewhere on a spectrum of energy, from yin to yang.

Different foods may be more yin (as in sugar) or yang (as in salt). Some foods exist near the extremities of this spectrum, containing high amounts of one kind of energy (red meat, for example, is strongly yang), while other foods fall towards the center and have a more balanced composition (leafy greens, for example, are faintly yin, and root veggies contain just a hint of yang).

yin yang food chart

Someone who follows a Macrobiotic diet seeks to balance out the yin and yang energies on their plate. The best way to do it? Not to swing the pendulum too far in either direction; in other words, to eschew the foods with extreme yin or yang energies, choosing instead those items which are relatively balanced: fruit, sea vegetables, leafy greens, round veggies, root veggies, beans, legumes, grains, and white-meat fish.

I don’t follow a strictly Macrobiotic Diet, but I do dig the idea of seeking harmony on my plate, and I definitely know what it’s like to experience a balance-seeking backlash in my relationship with food.

The Inevitable Backlash of Deprivation

According to researchers at UCLA, the average person who diets for six months will lose five to ten percent of their starting weight. Great! Except that’s not the whole story. Within five years, one-third to two-thirds of those who lost weight on a diet will regain more weight than they lost. There’s that pesky pendulum effect again.

Your body is a finely tuned, highly functioning machine, but it’s not always in cahoots with your intellect. For instance, when you decide to try that fashionable juice cleanse, your brain consciously acknowledges that you’ll be dramatically reducing your caloric intake for a short time. You’re fully aware that you’ll probably get a little hangry or euphoric, but that it’ll all be over in a matter of days. Everything will be fine! It’ll be more than fine – you’ll be glowing by the time you’re through!

But the thing is, your body doesn’t necessarily get the memo. As far as your body is concerned, you were going along fine, enjoying your abundant 21st century menu, when – all of a sudden – your caloric intake was cut in half, there’s no fiber coming in, what happened to the healthy fats, and ohmygod, this can only mean one thing: FAMINE!

Do you know how the human body responds to famine? To semi-starvation? It shuts down any nonessential activity to conserve energy. Immune function? Forget it. Reproductive capacity? As if – we can’t make a baby when there’s hardly enough fuel for one! Moreover, when your body is faced with semi-starvation your metabolic rate drops. It slows. And when you begin eating regularly again, it doesn’t necessarily speed back up. The pendulum has already swung to the other side.

Keep in mind that this juice cleanse example is a bit of an exaggeration. The effects of caloric deprivation take a few days at least to register in the body as an emergency situation. In fact, some research suggests that intermittent fasting may benefit overall health. But for chronic dieters or those suffering from eating disorders, this is no exaggeration.

I suffered from anorexia nervosa for a period of time around the age of 12, then began binging and purging a handful of years later. I had pulled the pendulum of deprivation to such an extreme, that by the time I was in college I felt helpless in the face of my compulsive urge to consume everything around me.

My particular brand of deprivation, so indicative of the “fat phobic 1990s”, was that I denied myself any form of the macro-nutrient fat. Many years later, a nutritional counselor asked me what type of food I binged on the most during my struggle with bulimia. “I don’t think there was one type,” I answered, “I feel like I binged on everything: ice cream, cheese, creamy pasta, doughnuts, pesto crepes, and peanut butter.” She stopped me. “Don’t you see? Those foods do have something in common: fat.” She was right. They were all foods high in fat. How’s that for a pendulum swing?

the cosmic pendulum

Not Quite Equilibrium

So how do we mitigate the destructive arc of the pendulum effect? How do we find balance in the areas of appetite, energy, and mood?

Well, let’s look to the metaphor for answers: a pendulum is never completely still. Even at rest, it is always moving, ever shifting, oscillating back and forth, but imperceptibly so. Just like the pendulum, we never seek to make our lives static, to be happy all the time, or relaxed all the time, or militantly controlling of our diets so they never stray from “perfect” equilibrium. We welcome these shifts, because they a part of being alive in a human body.

And yet, we wish to minimize the extreme swinging back and forth. Which is why we turn to mindfulness. The more in-tune we can become with the subtleties of our moods, patterns, and habits, the more likely we’ll be to notice a swing before it gets too extreme. And we can take a further cue from the Macrobiotic camp: if we aim to steer clear of extremes altogether, we automatically limit the extent to which those appetite, energy, and mood swings can get out of hand.

So let’s take another look at the way my February and March went down: what’s clear is that I have a tendency to push myself too hard until I reach a breaking point, at which time I go through a period of lethargic withdrawal. If I can integrate more mindfulness moving forward, perhaps by scheduling a 10 minute meditation break in the middle of every single work day (no matter how much there is to do), I’m less likely to burn out by the end of the week. And if I can limit my overall obligations and be more realistic about what I can get done in, say, a 28-day period, I’ll be even less likely to crash.

Basically, it’s about being kinder to myself and becoming more successful in the process. After all, two months of working at approximately 78% productivity is better than one month at 98% and the next at 2%. I’m not looking to eliminate my natural ebb and flow, I just want to keep the massive swings to a minimum.

In what ways do you experience the pendulum effect in your own life? Have you noticed it in others? How often do you stop to notice your dominant tendencies, and what would it mean to consciously cultivate a little bit of the opposite? Let’s take a cue from the universe and strive in the general direction of balance, whatever that means for us. After all, the other shoe is going to drop eventually.

scales

*Mine is a crude representation of the rich and wonderful world of Macrobiotics. For more information, check out The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics by Jessica Porter.

References:

http://www.kushiinstitute.org/what-is-macrobiotics/
http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/dieting-does-not-work-ucla-researchers-7832.aspx
http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/food2/UID07E/UID07E11.HTM
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-intermittent-fasting-might-help-you-live-longer-healthier-life/

I Believe

Image: Flickr Commons

Image: Flickr Commons

I believe that our society promotes the dangerous notion of aesthetic-based worth.

I believe that conventional “diets” are counterproductive to achieving and maintaining healthy weight.

I believe that you can make vast improvements in your physical and mental health with nutrition.

I believe that when you start making food choices that positively affect your brain and body, junk food automatically falls by the wayside.

I believe in crowding out less ideal foods with healthier, feel-good options rather than engaging in deprivation and punishment.

I believe in bio-individuality, that each person has unique dietary and lifestyle needs.

I believe that there’s no such thing as a bad food choice, only a good opportunity to examine how different foods make you feel.

I believe that deprivation backfires every time.

I believe that fat, carbs, and protein all serve their purpose and contribute to a healthy, balanced diet.

I believe that mindful eating is the missing link in the big picture of weight management.

I believe that mindful eating increases joy and satisfaction.

I believe you can achieve healthy weight through joyful living.

I believe that it is possible to overcome a dysfunctional relationship with food.

I believe that our bodies have a wisdom that outshines (and, if honed, can outperform) any cerebral conceptualization of “healthy diet.”

I believe that we all have the ability to tune in and listen to what our bodies are telling us.

I believe that learning about the health properties of specific ingredients can offer respite from dysfunctional eating.

I believe that the “war on obesity” should focus on changing the current U.S. food system, not on fat-shaming.

I believe in celebrating healthy body shapes that differ from the Hollywood ideal.

I believe that body acceptance is a radical act of feminism.

I believe that following your bliss takes guts.

I believe that loving your guts is where it all begins.