Just Eat the Damn Cake

cake2I hear it, or some version of it, at least once a week: “Oooh, if I have this [insert delicious or even just plain regular food here] I’ll have to do at least an extra half hour on the hamster wheel tonight.”

To which I usually cringe, roll my eyes, eat the thing in question, and then leave. I don’t have time for this kind of tomfoodery anymore.

I was recently at a goodbye work party with a fantastic spread of Mexican food. Someone had baked the best tres leches cake I had ever tasted – actually, make that the best cake I had ever tasted…ever – and as I stood next to it at the end of the buffet, the middle-aged surfer dude I work with sidled up to the punch bowl, eyed it nervously and uttered, “Hm…is it worth the calories?” Then look lustfully at the cake. “That’s another hour of exercise for me, I guess.”

I didn’t walk away this day. “Really? Because I’m probably gonna lay down for a nap after this,” I said. I suppose sarcasm shouldn’t be my first line of response, but I am what I am.

I get it. He probably doesn’t want to look like me. We’ve talked before and I know he watches his weight religiously. But if you have to do so much hard math about what you’re taking in and expending, if your energy balance is so fragile that a glass of punch or a piece of cake can throw it completely out of whack, then you’re probably not at the weight that your body wants to weigh – a weight I’d like to define as your happy weight.

Your happy weight, by my own definition, is the weight your body arrives at when you’re just living and enjoying life, eating normally and moving pleasurably. You might be trying to eat healthfully and get regular exercise, but those things don’t take up too much mental real estate. It’s the weight your body eventually returns to even after a week of vacation in Paris (two words: baguettes and brie). It’s the weight you maintain without constantly trying to deny yourself cake or breaking yourself at the gym every night. Because, in the end, trying to outrun calories doesn’t work for most in the long run and it’s no fun either.

I remember having similar thoughts about food during my dieting days. Looking at a piece of birthday cake or a slice of pizza, I’d mentally calculate how much extra time I’d have to spend at the gym that night to compensate. I was terrified the dial on the scale would inch ever so slightly, but steadily, upward. Maintaining a constant level of hunger was crucial to my success, but it sometimes resulted in overeating the exact foods I was trying to avoid, without the joy I would have experienced if I’d just eaten the damn thing in the first place. I was definitely not at my happy weight. I was able to buy size 6 clothing but I was so preoccupied with outrunning my calories that I couldn’t even enjoy it.

The reality is, when you are at the weight that is right for you (and only your body can determine what that is, not some diet plan), you can afford to live a little out of balance, a little decadently, on occasion without facing massive exercise compensation. After I ate 3 small pieces of that amazing cake (that’s just how good it was) I was done with sweets for a few days. I craved lighter meals with lots of vegetables. As far as I can tell, my weight did not change significantly (I don’t weigh myself).  The body has its way of bringing us back into balance if we will only trust it.

I hope surfer dude enjoyed the cake without too much guilt, if he could bring himself to have a piece. After all, cake is a normal, wonderful, usually occasional part of our lives. He probably would have been just fine. I know I was.

Good Nutrition isn’t Rocket Science

kaleJust as I had been thinking this week about how I was going to write about what good nutrition is and isn’t, I stumbled across this (somewhat dubious) article about kale and how it is an accumulator of heavy metals which, if eaten in excess, could potentially cause harm (in theory).

Does this mean you should stop eating kale? Probably not, since this article is a far cry from showing an actual harmful effect from normal kale consumption. More importantly, I think the article underscores how our society’s relationship to food is so completely out of whack. (For a wonderful debunking of the recent kale-panic, check out this page)

Kale fell under the “superfood” category (a term I despise heartily) somewhere in the last decade, and since then I’ve seen kale popping up everywhere in many forms: dried as “chips,” chopped up raw in bagged salads, mixed with grains, presented as the star player in soups. I enjoy kale, but I’m so totally kaled out right now from its ubiquitous presence that I’m about ready for a long vacation to Aruguland (hardy har).

Kale is merely the current symbol for what I’m going to call Superfood Syndrome: a food’s nutrition profile is found to be especially bountiful, and suddenly everyone is eating that vegetable AND ONLY that vegetable.

Except they’re totally missing one of the fundamentals of good nutrition: variety is key to getting everything we need. Yes, kale has a lot of thisthatandtheother nutrients (to be specific, beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium; the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin; and sulforaphane, which is known to have anti-cancer properties), but it cannot possibly have everything we need in it.

I think Superfood Syndrome is not about people worried about getting good nutrition. I think it’s about people trying to find the silver bullet that will ward off the inevitable end. I’ve got some sobering news for everyone: no one’s getting out of this thing alive. Even if eating kale (or other superfood) relentlessly every day for the rest of my days added another 10 years to my life, I’m not sure I’d want it if it involved eating the same thing every day. Thankfully, good nutrition doesn’t require you to do that!

Here’s all you really need to achieve good nutrition:

  1. Have a good relationship to food.  A healthy relationship to food means you aren’t thinking about it 24/7, you don’t fear your next meal, you don’t need to document everything you put in your mouth, and you feel relaxed, never guilty, about eating. Without this healthy relationship, your eating may end up out of balance at some point, eating either too much or not enough of what your body needs.
  2. Eat intuitively. Your body’s signals for hunger and satisfaction are the best guide to let you know when and how much you should eat. Listen to them, not some article or corporation or book or website that purports to know exactly how much you should eat.
  3. Eat a variety of foods. Eat every kind of food, from fruits and veggies all the way to fun foods like cookies and cake. You might argue that there is no nutritional value in those treat foods, but I argue that they satisfy other needs in our body, such as the need to eat really yummo foods from time to time. Psychological needs are easily as important as physiological needs when it comes to eating, and there are many different foods that satisfy both. The bottom line is that eating from a wide variety of foods ensures that we will get all the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that we need for optimum health.
  4. Eat fruits and vegetables. At least some every day, if you can. That these foods are really good for you is at least one part of nutrition science we can say we’ve got figured out. Aim for an average of five fruits and vegetables a day; for me that means some days I might not eat more than one serving, and other days I might eat 10. If you have a hard time including fruits and vegetables because you don’t like them, experiment with them slowly and introduce them to your palate a little bit at a time. I was never a veggie lover as a young person, but experimentation over the years has opened up that world to me, and oftentimes I’ll crave some veg like Brussels sprouts (which I upchucked when I was 5 years old) or rapini (which I didn’t even know existed till my early 30s).
  5. Enjoy what you eat. We’re designed to enjoy food, so enjoy it! Why spend time eating food you don’t like? Overall, I like including fruits and vegetables and whole grains in my diet not because they are “healthy” for me but because they make me feel good and I like the taste. I just can’t eat foods I don’t like (sorry, quinoa).

Experimentation. Variety. Enjoyment. And that’s pretty much it. You don’t have to be extreme or restrictive in your eating to get the best of food.

So put down that superfood you’re having for the tenth time today and see what else is out there!

Eating and Exercising for your Future Health Sucks

Feel good NOWPerhaps I am a naughty dietitian for saying so, but I think doing “healthy” stuff now to ward off vague future health threats is a terrible motivation for behavior change.

There. I said it. So sue me. But first let me explain.

I think we humans tend more toward hedonism than toward future thinking in that, most of the time, we just want to feel good in the immediate here and now.

This has been gleaned anecdotally by me in a not-at-all scientific way but I’m standing by it right now because 1. That’s how I am myself and 2. That’s how my clients are and 3. That’s how my friends are. So, with only a few exceptions, that is, like, everyone I know! Yeah, people want to be healthy but more importantly they want to feel good.

Somewhere along the way to feeling good and feeling healthy, weight became the stand-in for both, perhaps because it has immediate, visible results that let you know if what you are doing is working AND you feel good because everyone tells you nice things about how you look. But weight is a poor barometer of health and we know now how poorly weight loss works and so now the thing we implore you to do is “eat for your health.”

But I gotta say, that sucks. Even *I* don’t want to do that. And I’m a great planner. So what to do then?

Well, how about a little something I like to call feel-good-now-nutrition?

Let’s say you’re mastering intuitive eating, dieting is a thing of your past, and now you’re ready to try this business of eating healthier. You eat “virtuously” because you don’t want to get diabetes or heart disease, but then you keep forgetting about your reasons for eating this way because it’s a future thing. And who wants to be scared all the time worrying about conditions you might not – or worse, might – get? It’s too depressing, so you put it out of your mind. And I don’t blame you! Aside from some basic (and, sigh, I’m guessing inadequate) retirement planning, I don’t want to think of a future where I may be infirm in any way. I just want to enjoy living in the now.

And that’s where feeling good becomes your new guideline. For example, one of the best reasons to stop overeating is because the feeling of being overly full is just plain unpleasant. When you are in the middle of a meal, then, it makes sense to pause and not think about how healthy you’ll be in 30 years if you stop now, but how uncomfortable you might be in 30 minutes if you don’t stop now. Our internal cues around hunger and satiety are designed to make us feel good. Getting to that hungry-and-ready-to-eat point? Feel good. Getting into hangry territory? Feel bad. See? Simple!

Our bodies seek balance. After even a day of “treat” foods, I find myself craving a pile of vegetables. And when I have them – ones that I like, prepared how I like them (i.e. in a non-diet way) – I feel good. My stomach doesn’t feel weighed down or bloated, and I like that feeling. Or sometimes I want something “heavier” like comfort food, because that’s what makes me right as rain at that moment. Our bodies crave variety so that we get all the nutrients we need from a range of foods. Yes, vegetables are healthy, so there is definitely an advantage to including them in your diet. But there are a ton of feel-good-right-now reasons to include them in your diet, taste being one and bowel regularity being an important other. Can’t poop? Feel baaaad. If you’re not a vegetable lover, try experimenting incrementally with different veggies using recipes that combine them with favorite foods (like green beans sautéed with bacon fat, Stilton blue cheese, and walnuts – thank you Jamie Oliver!).

This works for exercise as well. I only exercise now when I feel like it and I only do what is fun or what helps me to clear my head and loosen my joints. After years of experimenting, it turns out that I feel good getting some sort of movement most days of the week. All of those days aren’t spent at the gym – at most I want to be there two days a week, and others not at all. I’ve found other forms of activity that make me feel good for a variety of reasons. Most recently this has been a line dancing class at work, which feels good not just because it is movement but because it’s totally fun, goofy, and social. Exercise doesn’t have to be about the sweat at all if that doesn’t make you feel good.

So to recap: Feeling healthy = Feeling good right now. Math portion of the post now complete.

Finding the “healthy” foods and the right movement is important, but they have to make you feel good in the moment. We are creatures built for happiness now first and foremost, so let that be your biggest motivator for being healthy. Because after all, our happiness is the most important part of our health!

I Do Look Old, I’m Still Fat, I Hate My Hair and I Like Myself Anyway

“As soon as a woman gets to an age where she has opinions and she’s vital and she’s strong, she’s systematically shamed into hiding under a rock.” – Sarah Silverman

“Women have face-lifts in a society in which women without them appear to vanish from sight.” – Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

Kali is way to busy to worry about what she looks like right now.
Kali is way to busy to worry about what she looks like right now.

The body-snark title of this blog is meant to be a bit ironic, but also truthful, I think, in the way that these kinds of messages ticker tape their way across our brains with alarming regularity. This blog is as much about body image as it is about learning to live a non-diet lifestyle, because negative body image is the kind of thing that drives the kinds of harmful, wackadoodle behaviors we engage in such as dieting and the general pursuit of perfection.

One of my very good friends asked me recently, via email, what I thought of botox and fillers and such. This was born out of conversation about not liking getting old and “old-looking.” I don’t steer clear of these conversations with my friends because I think it’s important to acknowledge insecurities when we have them, and then dissect the possible reasons we feel that way. A classic Glenys email rant followed that went something like this (edited for purposes of clarity and general sense-making):

My thought on plastic surgery, botox, fillers, etc. is that they just make a woman look insecure about who she is and getting older, because you can always tell. I’m not judging women who have these things done because we do live in a world that encourages us to hide our age.* But why must we submit to this world? It’s like throwing in the towel and saying, “Yes, yes, we admit it, our only value in society is the physical beauty and youth we have to offer.” And it’s literally ruining our lives. I’m such a better, smarter, kinder, more confident, more fun, wiser person now than I was when I was in my 20s and even my 30s but lately my initial thought (and I AM working to overcome this) when I see photos of myself is “Look at my belly! Look at my sagging face! I’m an old and hideous sea monster!” At the same time, I recognize that this is all bullshit, that no man walks around thinking anything but “I’m great!”  [I know this is not true for many dudes. But I think it might be true for a lot of dudes, and I actually congratulate this kind of self-confidence, we should all walk around feeling like this. As long as you’re not a total dickhead.] Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I’m pretty happy with the way I look, when I bother to look…but this reflexive thinking still rears up and bites me in the ass often enough to be annoying.

So yeah, I sometimes don’t like the external aging process either. I wish I could say I didn’t care, but I also know I’m not alone here. I don’t think we can be blamed for this; we live in a youth-and-beauty-obsessed culture. On top of that our current culture does not support the accomplishments of women unless the accomplishments are 1. The woman is beautiful 2. The woman was “ugly,” then got beautiful (Pygmalion-style) 3. The woman is thin, and managed to remain thin into middle and old age 4. The woman was fat and got thin 5. The woman is young, thin and beautiful.

So we are steeped in this horseshit where all anyone cares about women is that they are winning on either the thin front, the beauty front or the youth front (and bonus points for all three at the same time!). I almost never hear men complain about getting older-looking, maybe because our culture celebrates the actual accomplishments of men rather than how they look doing them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bagging on men, I love men, and this is how it should be for both genders. Unfortunately, lately instead of the situation getting better for women, men are getting dragged into the malarkey of the pursuit of bodily perfection now, too. This is not progress!!

This is nothing Naomi Wolf didn’t tell us in The Beauty Myth. But that was 24 years ago and I’m left wondering, what has changed? The other night I sat across from a pretty, funny, smart woman who fretted that she had been fabulous 15 pounds lighter, but not so much now. There’s something wrong about a world in which someone thinks that 15 pounds can erase the fabulousness of her entire person.

We must fight it. When I start in on snarking myself in photos, I immediately follow it up with two thoughts: A. WHO THE FUCK CARES!? and B. I’m a human who accomplishes real things that have nothing to do with how I look. Because for the most part (trolls be damned) no one else cares what we look like except our own selves, and we need to stop making ourselves feel bad because it’s making us do a lot of extreme things in the name of trying to like ourselves better – like dieting and invasive (and potentially dangerous) surgeries.

My friend who laments getting older-looking is one of the best. She is the funniest person I know, talented, smart, strong, and the person I email first when life is getting me down. She made her way through some seriously hard times with humor and aplomb when neither were required. Looking younger would not make her more awesome. I bet she thinks similar things of me. We are both wonderful ladies who don’t need to pick apart stupid things like double chins and bulging bellies and wrinkles.

If we are lucky enough, we get older and then old, and yes, god forbid, old looking. Why we aren’t looking at those signs of change as badges of honor and saying, “Yes! We made it! Another year to do amazing things!” will be forever beyond me, but I’m going to start making it a habit right now.

El Capitan

*I’m not counting plastic surgeries done for medical reasons, such as breast reduction to relieve pain or breast reconstruction after mastectomies. I’m talking about cosmetic surgeries and procedures for purposes of relieving insecurities.