You don’t have to figure out the universal truth of nutrition.

When I speak with clients, a theme that often comes up is the question of what is true and what is false in nutrition. Yesterday, an article about the demonization of fat made headlines, and along with it, whipped up that familiar confusion about nutrition and people asking a very familiar question: what is actually the truth?

It’s a good question, an important question, and one which will likely keep researchers and dietitians busy for decades. But the thing that always strikes me about this question is who asks it, and who seems to feel most tormented over the fact that there are, seemingly, very few answers: usually a person who is neither a researcher or a dietitian.

I’ve met many people who appear to be engaged in a one-person mission to discover the universal truth of human nutrition by conducting a series of uncontrolled experiments on themselves. It’s a very human, and very noble, undertaking, but one that always strikes me with its futility. It also carries with it a great deal of stress, and a great burden of effort with very little promise of reward for its champion.

I am fully supportive of people who enjoy conducting nutritional experimentation on themselves, though I’m not one of them, and it’s not a lifestyle I would recommend. Some people view it as a hobby, and come away with a few insights into their own body’s workings, largely unscathed. But this isn’t true for everyone, and my own clients (some of whom are people Ellyn Satter referred to as “Dieting Casualties”) are a great source of information on why this is.

When the foundational workings of your relationship with food are not yet in place (the lower tiers of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs), it can actually be destructive to that relationship to place the burden of experimentation on top of it. Nutritional experiments reside in the very top of the Hierarchy of Food Needs, under the label of “instrumental food,” which means eating in a way that gets you some symbolic or health-related outcome.

Hierarchy of food needs, in order: enough food, acceptable food, reliable ongoing access to food, good-tasting food, novel food, and instrumental food.

Certainly people can make instrumental food choices without damaging their relationship to food — but not before the lower-order needs are fulfilled and stable.

The unfortunate thing is, the way nutrition is communicated in our culture and even from our established health authorities, “instrumental” food choices are usually front and center, before (and often instead of) any of the lower-order needs. Thus, most people, when they start to think about nutrition, try to begin from this point rather than working their way up to it.

This results in people who haven’t already established, for example, feeding themselves regularly — or who don’t have quite enough money to buy more expensive “instrumental” groceries, or who feel guilty and ashamed for taking pleasure in food, or who only have a handful of foods that they know how to eat and like — attempting to impose upon their eating habits completely new and burdensome food rules.

Which usually ends in spectacular “failure” a little way down the road. (I put “failure” in scare-quotes because it’s hard for me to view it as an actual failure when an arbitrary set of diet rules falls by the wayside — your body probably views it as an unqualified success, but to the person making the attempt, it is demoralizing all the same.)

The bigger issue, of course, is this: it is literally not your job to figure out the universal truth of nutrition. Unless you’re a researcher who has been funded to do this, not only is your sample size too small, but you run the very real risk of hurting yourself and destroying your relationship with food. Please remind yourself of this when the temptation to conduct yet another uncontrolled experiment comes your way.

You are not obligated to uncover, all by yourself, with your mouth and your body, what holds true for all people with regard to nutrition. Your only job is to feed yourself faithfully, get comfortable with food and your enjoyment of it, and then to find out what is true for you. The only universal rule of nutrition that I’ve discovered in my many years of studying and practicing it, aside from eat or die, is that humans are massively omnivorous and nutrition is extremely individual. Your truth will be different than someone else’s.

That’s okay. Your truth counts too.


Individual truths in comments.

Posted in Diets, eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed

Good food, bad food, and subversive food combining.

The idea that there are universally “good” foods and “bad” foods is an old one, ancient even. There are traces of it in Leviticus, though the way the concept was used then is perhaps different from how we use it now.*

Given what we know about clinical nutrition, that sometimes a startling mix of foods can be used to help people in certain disease states — more ice cream and gravy for someone undergoing cancer treatment, less protein and fewer vegetables for someone with kidney disease — and since dividing your risk among a wide variety of different foods can help hedge your health bets, the idea that there are universally good or bad foods doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.

I take it more as evidence of black-or-white thinking — a hallmark of diet culture — which is almost always false.

The words themselves, good and bad, imply a moral dynamic to food that I just don’t think belongs there. Sure, food can be literally bad if it’s spoiled or contaminated with botulism. But even if you eat this kind of bad food and get sick from it, we don’t generally assume that you now have become a bad and contaminated person.

We just think you’re sick, send soup, and wait for you to get better.

Getting food poisoning doesn’t stain your character or reputation, even if you are literally contaminated by a bacteria that a food has transmitted to you. There’s an implicit understanding that the body is self-cleansing and will get the pollution, the infection, out of its system over time. And though you might be averse to eating a food that made you sick in the future, due to stomach-churning associations, you probably won’t assume it is a universally bad food eaten only by bad people.

We do, however, make this assumption about moral contamination, that (morally) bad foods (which are coincidentally usually high-calorie, presumably “fattening” foods) are eaten by bad, gluttonous, ignorant, irresponsible, and usually low-class (and coincidentally fat) people. And we try to avoid those foods, we claim, out of concern for our health. But, in practice, it appears to be much more about avoiding that moral stain.

Even if there are foods that, in isolation, don’t produce ideal health outcomes for most people, does the idea that these foods are uniquely bad while other foods are uniquely good actually help us to be well-fed? I’ve asked dozens of people this question, “Does believing in ‘bad food’ help you to eat better?” It’s an honest question.

After looking at the ceiling for a second, then looking down and letting out a bitter little laugh, they always tell me no.

No, thinking of the foods they want to avoid as morally bad does not help them to eat a more nourishing diet in the long run. It doesn’t even help them to avoid those foods, most of the time. For a lot of us, it only succeeds in producing guilt for eating a perfectly human mix of foods.

If a belief in good foods and bad foods helped people, on balance, to eat better, I could grudgingly get behind the idea, though being a fat hedonist, I would always advocate for pleasure. But it fails even in its stated objective, to say nothing of the side-effects that come with it.

I do believe there are foods that are generally more nutritious than others (in certain ways, keeping in mind that macronutrients and the calories that represent them are still technically nutrients, after all), and which usually leave a person generally feeling better, and generally in better health, than others. But there’s also something to be said for eating and including foods that are designed primarily for pleasure, not for the cessation of physical hunger or the promotion of long-term health.

Learning to break down the categories of “good” food and “bad” food is a little tricky, but it can be done.

One of my favourite techniques for doing this, aside from giving yourself explicit permission and acknowledging that all food is food, is to do what I called “subversive food combining.” This means, simply, putting together foods that you would usually classify as good and bad, and that you would usually keep apart (that “healthy” meal of fish, rice, and vegetables you eat when you’re being “good,” vs. the pint of ice cream you eat when you’re being “bad”) by including them in the same meal, or even on the same plate.

Maybe I’m a jerk, but it gives me a cheap thrill. Some combinations I’ve tried:

  • Potato chips and salad
  • Sauteed kale and pizza
  • Peanut m&ms and an apple
  • Boxed macaroni and cheese with pork tenderloin and greens (this is traditional in many places, but where I grew up, boxed mac and cheese was strictly kid food, and strictly eaten in isolation)
  • Carrots with bean and cheese burritos
  • Cookies and almonds

Telling yourself that there are no good foods and bad foods is one thing. It is necessary, but not sufficient to produce an actual change in how you view food. Backing it up with action is crucial.

Try it. Break a few rules. Crush the false dichotomy.

So, if thinking of foods as either good or bad doesn’t actually help people to eat better, what does? In my experience, it’s eating observantly, but non-judgmentally, and taking note of your pleasure both during and after eating. Noticing how food both tastes during eating, and how it makes you feel, physically, after.

Over a series of hundreds of personal experiments, you can start to shape your eating in a way that makes the most sense to you, that leaves you both happy and feeling healthy, and that improves measurable indices of health, like cholesterol or blood sugar. But in order to conduct these experiments, you have to give yourself permission to eat anything. You have to acknowledge that food is neither universally good or bad, real or not-real, pure or polluted.

And you have to believe that it cannot, by association, make you good or bad either.


*I like what Mary Douglas had to say in the preface to the 2002 edition of Purity and Danger: “[My] most serious mistake was to have accepted that the rational, just, compassionate God of the Bible would ever have been so inconsistent as to make abominable creatures…I now question that they are abominable at all, and suggest rather that it is abominable to harm them.” It is quite possible that such ancient food rules weren’t based on pollution theory at all, but it seems possible that many contemporary food rules are. Foods that are not seen as “whole” or “natural,” foods that skirt neat categorization into a single food group (pizza), or defy entry into any staple food group at all (gummy bears), are usually seen as impure and having the power to pollute anyone who consumes them.

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I ate frozen food for four months so I could do trauma therapy.

A while ago, I embarked on the difficult and strangely exhausting project of closing a gaping internal wound, the type many of us walk around with our entire lives, in constant pain and in constant denial that the wound exists: I went through trauma therapy.

Along with it, I spent four months or so eating mostly frozen food, supplemented with an assortment of vegetables and fruit, often also frozen.

It didn’t kill me or noticeably weaken me.

If anything, it gave me the time and energy to take care of myself.

I was not expecting therapy to be so physically exhausting, but it was. It was a lot like the exhaustion of internship. During my internship, I usually worked a 10 hour day, filled with the constant assimilation of new information, constant dredging up of old information I’d learned in the classroom years before, and constant anxiety about messing up. I came home a husk of myself, mechanically ate whatever food was put in front of me, watched 30 minutes of TV, made my lunch and set out my clothes, and then slept for as long as possible so my brain could sort through the wreckage.

At the start of therapy, I decided that feeding myself had to be as low-effort as I could make it. I knew that not eating at all, or eating irregularly, would undermine all of my efforts and made me sick in its own right, so that wasn’t an option. (In the distant past, it might have been. Yay, progress!)

I already cook simply, and usually our evening meals are homemade, or a mix of homemade and pre-made. This ensures that we actually make dinner happen, night in and night out, with extremely few spontaneous takeout orders and basically zero restaurant trips. But even this was too much for my trauma brain to deal with. So I decided to make my emotional health the priority and let cooking, aside from opening a package, fall by the wayside — while still feeding myself faithfully.

It worked well. I feel very grateful to live in a time and place, and to have enough money, to be able to outsource cooking to an assortment of ready-made products. It allowed me to solve a problem that in many people’s lives goes totally unsolved, and went unsolved in my own life for years. It also gave me back an hour of time at a critical time of day so that I could catch up on work, or lie down, or exercise a bit.

Over the years I’ve learned that when life crises (either positive or negative) happen, I am going to lose a bit of functioning in other areas. It is just not humanly possible to keep all areas of life completely together 100% of the time. When you unintentionally lose functioning – can’t sleep, can’t focus on work, can barely feed yourself – it’s very distressing, on top of the already-stressful thing that is happening. I’ve been through it enough times to know the horror of being reminded that you are, indeed, not totally in control of everything that happens in life. But learning to intentionally set other aspects of the great video game of life to Easy when you encounter a surprise Brutal Bonus Level is a useful work-around.

You can choose, on purpose, to make some things easy when other things are hard.

You can choose, a little bit, where to lose functioning instead of being ambushed.

The reason I’m writing about this is because of the pervasive guilt and wretchedness I see people get into when they contemplate the prospect of food that is somehow not-good-enough. It is true that food can be more or less helpful to your immediate functioning and long-term health, but the judgments I see people pile on themselves usually concern health only as a thin veneer over something much more troubling: self-loathing. Accusations of laziness, or immorality, or un-classiness, or ignorance and un-sophistication. Of not working hard enough to redeem themselves.

Let me tell you, being human is enough work for anyone. Being alive in a world where terrible and wonderful things happen at random to anyone and everyone at any moment, and the labour we put into mounting defenses against this reality, is a hard damn job. You don’t need to impress yourself or anyone with doing extraneous work just to get fed.

If it makes you happy, gives more than it takes, or adds brightness to your day, by all means, let yourself make that effort. If putting more effort into cooking is what nourishes you, do it and remember to thank your lucky stars. But if it doesn’t, if it adds one more vexing decision that must be made or one more hour of drudgery to your day, why not ask yourself who it’s really for? Because I promise it’s not you.

Cooking is not my primary joy or hobby, though I do take pleasure in it when I’m healthy. What I refuse to do is turn it into a moral obligation or a stick I beat myself with once I’m already down. It is not going to purify me or redeem me. At its best, it will feed me and feed me well, but I can get fed well enough in other ways if necessary.

Frozen food didn’t kill me, it gave me some time every day so I could tend to my most pressing need: to be with myself and to heal.


Traumatic food choices in comments.

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Basic mammal maintenance, or How to be nice to yourself.

Continuing on the theme of childhood neglect, my nonscientific gut-check tells me that if people were mean or indifferent or unable to care for you while you were a kid, you might lack the skills to care for yourself as an adult.

This can lead to a place of acute suffering. It can also make you feel like something is fundamentally wrong with you, instead of understanding that your suffering is the result of something that happened (or didn’t happen when you needed it to), and not something you are.

Which can obscure the fact that these skills are, in fact, learned — people aren’t just born with them.

When you’re suffering, and you suspect that something is fundamentally wrong with you, it can be very difficult to find effective help. If you struggle to find effective help, and you also don’t know the basics of how to care for yourself, it can feel like falling into a very deep pit where every attempt to dig yourself out crashes in on you.

The thing that lifts you out of the pit is taking care of yourself, first, and understanding that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you, second. Your experiences are proof of your humanness, not your brokenness.

Even when you’re in pain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

Even when you’re sick, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

Humans get sick and feel pain.

Guess what you are? I’ll give you one guess.

Even if you didn’t learn to take care of yourself as a kid, it is something you can easily learn as an adult. At the same time, being nice to yourself can be surprisingly difficult to master, thanks in large part to our weird and often dysfunctional culture. But I have some thoughts.

First of all, you won’t suddenly become a molten sloth if you start being nice to yourself. That’s a myth, and it’s part of that thing I just said about our dysfunctional culture. If anything, learning to be nice to yourself helps you to build resilience, so the next time some crappy thing happens in life, you have a bit more stamina to get through it. It makes life a tiny bit less scary since you know that, even if things get really bad, you’ve got yourself in your corner, doing nice things for you.

Second, being nice to yourself involves both doing things that you want, and doing things that you need to do. It is not all one or the other. In fact, the quickest way to be super mean to yourself is to pick one and avoid the other.

Only doing the things that need to be done ends in a super clean house, glowing reports from your boss, and all your bills paid on time…but also burnout, sadness, and no time for yourself.

Only doing the things you want to do feels really, really good…for a while. It also ends in sadness, feeling sick or groggy, and often having waaaaaay too much time on your hands.

So how do you start this incredibly, strangely difficult process of being nice to yourself? I’ll give you some pointers.

Take Breaks

You would be shocked at the number of people I talk to who simply…don’t…ever…take breaks. It actually boggles my mind. Sure, a lot of them goof off, at some point, sneaking stolen moments of time to look at Facebook, or guiltily wresting an hour to do something other than work-work. All of them collapse, at some point, in the evening when they are incapable of doing any more.

In my mind, none of that really counts as a proper break. First of all, it’s usually not planned or intentional — it often only happens once the person is up against the wall of their own exhaustion and has no other choice but to stop for a while. Or it’s completely spoiled by guilt. Too little, too late.

What I’m suggesting, instead, is that you plan, on purpose, to take regular, restorative breaks throughout the day. For me, a fully restorative break requires: knowing what time it’s coming, getting up from my desk (not just sitting in the same spot and looking at the same screen), and preferably having a change of scenery, even if just means the next room or a different part of the room. And then some kind of reward, whether it’s a snack, a beverage, a book, music, doodling, or petting a cat.

Most jurisdictions have some law on the books about legal break times. If you possibly can, find out what breaks you’re entitled to and take them. On purpose.

Comfort Yourself

Do small physical things that are comforting and distracting. Especially when stressed, this can be very useful. Doing small physical things helps to keep your mind occupied while feels (of any variety) run their course.

Small physical things I like to do can depend on which emotion I’m feeling (sad vs. angry, for example.) If I’m anxious or angry, sometimes a small bit of exercise, like even a few wall pushups or a brief walk, followed by taking a break is the key. When I’m sad, usually something very comforting, like a very hot shower, fuzzy pajamas, and then getting in bed early with a heating pad and a book and a cat, is the most helpful. Sometimes I’ll eat a particularly nice snack while paying close attention to how it tastes.

For some people, music is helpful, or something nice-smelling. Think of each of the five senses and try to make a list of things you find comforting. Hand lotion? Cuticle oil? Warm socks? Pretty pictures? Perfume? Videos of people jumping off a rope swing at the place where you used to go camping as a kid (warning: heights)?

Get Some Rest

Set yourself up to get enough rest. Even if you’re having trouble sleeping, lying down to rest can be useful. I read somewhere that you receive 70% of the benefit of sleeping just from laying down, awake. I have no idea whether this is true, and I don’t want to verify it because it is such a useful fiction when I’m lying there, fretting about not sleeping.

I also find that when I do all of my get-ready-for-bed tasks right after dinner, instead of waiting for Late O’Clock, it’s easier to fall in bed when I’m tired and actually sleep. When I’m particularly stressed, letting myself lie in bed early, even when I have no intention of sleeping yet, helps me wind down until I just fall asleep on my own, usually at an earlier time than I otherwise would. A Kindle loaded with a bunch of extremely silly books is indispensable for this.

And if I really can’t sleep, getting up to read in a comfy chair until I’m sleepy helps too. I know this breaks a lot of sleep hygiene rules, but you can experiment.

Give Your Feelings Some Credit

When you feel sad or anxious or angry, don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Acknowledge that your feelings make sense, even if the thoughts that go with them don’t always. Feelings are allowed to be there, even when you don’t act on them. The best way of acting on them is usually by taking care of yourself, not by acting out.

Get Out of the House

Especially if you work from home, or have an irregular schedule and a tendency to cocoon — get out of the house once per day. Even if it’s just to take out garbage or stand on your stoop for five minutes. On days when I am just slammed and have no time, I will often just stand on my balcony and stare, slack-jawed, at trees for five minutes. It helps. The fresh air, the change of scenery, getting out of your head for a bit…it helps.

Feed and Water Yourself

Offer yourself food and fluids at least three times a day. I had a period of time where I noticed, on weekends, I would often just abandon any pretense of structure with my eating. You know what happened? Rather than experiencing the joys of a free-wheeling, zero-responsibilities, foodless existence, I laid around and felt like death. It reliably destroyed my mood, my energy levels, and basically my entire weekend.

Once I realized what I was doing, I made a deal with myself: I didn’t have to eat meals AND regular snacks the way I often do on weekdays, when my schedule is more structured and I’m expending more energy and thus feel hungrier, but I was going to make an effort to put something breakfast-like, something lunch-like, and something dinner-like in front of myself three times a day.

When I got into the habit of doing it (it did require a bit of clock-watching at first), it became very natural. Now I get reliably hungry at those times, even on weekends, and it’s easy to remember. Plus I don’t feel like a zombie. My weekends are saved.

Get a Tiny Thing Done

Do one thing each day that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you’re really in the hole, it can be something small, like unloading the dishwasher or opening one piece of mail. Once you’re somewhat out of the hole, it can be doing a few hours of work-work, or responding to emails, or cleaning the bathroom. Just one thing, each day, that gives you a sense of “I got something done.”

Your Brain Will Try to Talk You Out of It

What will get in the way? Mostly, a lot of internalized messages about how doing nice things for yourself is lazy or self-indulgent or frivolous or selfish. Which, yes, true, if you stopped to do any of these things while a house was on fire in front of you, they might be. But most of us are not in such urgent situations, at least not all of the time. Somewhere, at some point in the day, most of us do have time that could be devoted to the care and feeding of ourselves.

It is tempting to think of all of this as optional, nice-to-have-but-not-necessary, to which I respectfully say — especially if you’re dealing with any symptoms of depression or anxiety or going through a stressful time — bullshit. This stuff is not optional. It is basic maintenance to remain a functional human being. If you don’t want to function at all, that’s your call, because I promise that will eventually happen if you don’t start taking a tiny sliver of time to reward yourself for not imploding.

Another thing that will get in the way is feeling that you don’t deserve it. That other people, sure, should take breaks and eat food and sleep as part of basic mammal maintenance, but that you, you, are set apart from them in a special category reserved for the most intense self-loathing and the least pressing creature needs.

I mean, if people treated you like you didn’t deserve basic care as a child, that none of your needs were valid, why wouldn’t you go on to believe that and treat yourself that was as an adult? You would! It’s perfectly understandable!

It’s just completely wrong.

You are just as valuable as anyone else, and you deserve just as much care-taking as anyone else. This is how you should have been cared for all along. You can’t go back in time and erase the past, but you can make the effort to place your feet on a different path right now.

Even if your past involved neglect, your future doesn’t have to. You need care, and you deserve it. You can do this.


Share with the class in comments.

Posted in eating, Liking Yourself, Moving | Comments closed

It’s okay to love food.

Last time, I wrote about sometimes when people have been abused or neglected around food, it makes sense that they might grow up to dislike feeding themselves. But what is equally true is that, sometimes, when people are deprived of food, their inborn love of food does not desert them, or they go on to develop an intense love of food they didn’t have before.

They might become interested in cooking and baking, or they might hoard food. At one point in history, researchers assumed these thoughts and behaviours — termed “food preoccupation” — were part of the pathology of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. But as Kelsey Miller’s excellent recent article on the Minnesota Starvation Study illustrates, these behaviours are now well-known as hallmarks of simple starvation.

I remember once discussing this with a client who had recovered from an eating disorder, who had gone on to cook professionally. She said she found it very troubling, because it made her wonder whether her passion for cooking were just one more manifestation of her eating disorder, rather than an expression of her personality and love of food. It was a few years ago, but I still think about our conversation to this day.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, North American culture is currently experiencing a renaissance of home cooking and gourmand-like devotion to food. Even our dieting trends have shifted to become more focused on the quality of food, ever more sophisticated nutritional theories, and scratch cooking. This comes on the heels of a mid-century epoch that was very focused on pre-packaged convenience foods, where the dieting trends centred almost entirely on calories, nutrition came a distant second, and quality of the food was not even on the radar.

The mid- to late 20th century was the era of dieting that called for half a grapefruit, dry white toast, and a cup of black coffee for breakfast. Or two powdered shakes for breakfast and lunch, followed by an impossibly “sensible” dinner. Or fully-branded, entirely pre-packaged, calorie-controlled diet meals and snacks, often leaning heavily on artificial sweeteners for flavour.

In contrast, the 21st century diet breakfast (though we rarely call it that; “diet” as a word has lost some of its power to invoke purity, status, and leanness) is more likely to be a green smoothie, chia seed pudding, or steel-cut oats — something made at home from raw, whole ingredients that reek of freshness, wholesomeness, and a new sort of crunchy purity.

There is, to me, a definite tang of food preoccupation in this resurgence of home cooking, and our growing concern for food quality, even while dieting. But rather than thinking this is a bad thing, it actually gives me a lot of hope.

I only find foodie-ism annoying when it is predicated on snobbery and enforcing social hierarchies, or promotes food restriction in disguise, not when it is genuinely celebrating food. And I see this resurgence in interest in food, just like the food preoccupation that often follows a period of deprivation, as a manifestation of the versatile and ingenious human survival drive. It is life making a way in an environment that often pressures us to deny our fundamental need to eat.

Food preoccupation can be distressing, and sometimes it comes in not-helpful forms, like obsessing over calories or counting the minutes until you get to eat again (although that last one is pretty understandable when deprivation is a possibility.) But food preoccupation can also look like an intense interest in food, taking joy and pleasure in preparing it, feeding yourself, savouring your meals, and maybe even making food your life’s work.

In other words, it can look an awful lot like coming back to life.

If your love of food was not punished and starved out of you, you are the recipient of some marvelous good luck. I am always thrilled to know people like this exist. Similarly, if an experience of deprivation triggered a new love of food and a desire to devote time and attention to it, this is a reminder of your body’s intense desire to live, and its ability to craft attitudes and behaviours that lead to food-seeking and, ultimately, survival. It is your body protecting and providing for you.

Either way, love of food is a gift. If you’ve managed to hold onto or discover it under the threat of abuse or starvation or self-hatred, you are very lucky.

Celebrate your good fortune — eat and enjoy it.

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