Permission to Stuff Your Face

If there is anyone out there who actually reads my posts regularly, I apologize for this long hiatus. I am getting over a rough case of mono, and just haven’t had the wherewithal to write for the last few weeks on top of my schoolwork and other obligations. I have to say, too, that as someone who makes my health such a priority, it has taken a toll on me to feel so out of control of my body as this virus has saddled me with one debilitating symptom after another. Fortunately, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and I might even get back in the gym tomorrow!

Now, it sucks to get mono and other acute illnesses, even for just a few weeks! But a lot of my audience knows that I want to change the way people eat because it will prevent crippling and fatal chronic diseases that afflict more and more people every day.  Actually, to some extent changing the way we eat will prevent infectious disease too.

Throughout my adolescence, I have often thought of healthful eating as limiting the bad stuff. I think this is an attitude that is very common among the health-conscious. Overeating, for many of us, is associated with guilt and shame. Of course, I do feel that highly processed foods and animal products must be limited in order to promote health. As of late, though, I’m coming around to the idea that our diets would actually be more nutritious if we stopped emphasizing what to limit, and told people to eat as much as they can—of the good stuff, that is.

Over my spring break, while I was home sick, I read this great book called How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger. It is the most comprehensive review of the scientific evidence about food and health that I’ve come across. Greger addresses the top causes of death in the country, and the foods and behaviors that have been shown to prevent and reverse them. Wonderfully, his conclusions for most of the conditions he covers are very similar: the evidence directs us to eat as many whole plant foods as possible. There is also indication to limit animal products, added sugar, salt, and smoking, but it seems that eating plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables might be more powerful at promoting health than the junk is at detracting from it.

I don’t know about you, but I find that quite liberating. And especially since I’ve become vegan, I do feel free to pile my plate so high with salad that people in the cafeteria gawk at me. I eat as much of those whole foods as I want, I maintain my weight, and I feel great (minus the mono, of course). That’s not to say that I never treat myself to something more indulgent; I definitely do! But I get my fill of fruit and veggies first. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing you can do for your long-term health (not to mention the planet) is to make your default minimally processed plant foods. So EAT UP. DIG IN.

 

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Coming to Terms with my Relationship to Food

For those of you that know me well or have read a lot of my blog posts, you know that I have a complicated relationship with food, and have struggled with my body image for most of my adolescence. I’m definitely less preoccupied with my weight now than I have been in the past, but that may just be because I’ve gotten very good at controlling it. I weigh myself regularly, and if I notice my weight increasing even the slightest bit above what I think it should be, I feel a little “less than,” even if I know rationally that it’s just a temporary fluctuation, and even if I know that it’s just because I ate a ton of broccoli the night before that has yet to clear my digestive tract.

I like to think I’m more concerned with my health than my weight, but deep down I’m still terrified of losing control and gaining weight. Because I’m vegan now, there are a lot of fattening foods I won’t even consider eating anymore, but I still fret about drinking my calories or eating spontaneously when I haven’t planned to. For instance, if I accidentally spill more dressing on my salad than I intended, the thought of those extra calories will bother me slightly at least until I get on the scale again and see a number I like. Typing this out so honestly, I feel like I sound crazy, but I hope this resonates with someone out there.

Of late, this preoccupation with weight has been at the forefront of my mind because I have an injury that’s preventing me from engaging in my normal workout routine. I twisted my ankle, and it’s taking a while to heal. I can’t do any of the cardio I would normally do, like spinning and running and Zumba, and I love my cardio. It makes me feel great and definitely relieves stress, but, like many people, I also associate it with maintaining my weight. I have actually become convinced on an intellectual level in the last few years that the amount of exercise that I and most non-athletes engage in does not really affect one’s weight (especially at my size), but at the same time I still fear that I’ll gain weight if I’m not exercising and don’t eat less to compensate for it.

I have been pleased to find that I am not gaining any noticeable weight while I’m not working out, but it also bothers me that that is still my main concern. I definitely feel fortunate that my anxiety in this regard is not much worse, because I know it is for many people. But I think if I want to make my career about changing the way people eat and promoting a healthful relationship to food, I need to practice what I preach and really work on healing my own.

 

Can we talk about capitalism for a sec?

Over this wonderfully long winter break, I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on my food reading list. At the top of my list was Soda Politics, written by one of my ultimate nutrition heroes, Marion Nestle. If you like my blog, you should check out hers. Anyway, her writing always gets me thinking who is really to blame for our diet crisis.

Those of us who believe that poor diet is largely a result of systematic and societal factors as opposed to individual factors tend to want to blame the trillion-dollar food industry. After all, a lot of the harmful aspects of our food system wouldn’t exist if corporations weren’t prioritizing profit over public health.

That being said, how could any reasonable person expect a corporation, particularly a publicly traded corporation, to prioritize any goal above increasing return on investment? For-profit business exist to make a profit (yes, I know, DUH). I don’t think the CEO of Pepsi is evil for permitting her employees to market to psychologically vulnerable young children; she’s really just doing her job.

With that in mind, it is critically important for the public and the government to recognize the ways that corporate dollars influence our food policies and our behavior so that we can begin to regulate the food industry appropriately. Food companies are not going to regulate themselves to the extent that it interferes with profits. I don’t hate them for it. But if we want to drastically change the food environment in this country, I believe this is the most realistic way to look at it.

If you are wanting some evidence for why we should regulate the food industry, here are a few fun facts about “Big Soda,” courtesy of the stupendous Dr. Nestle:

  • Overwhelmingly, the only studies that do not show harmful health effects of soda are those funded in some measure by the soda industry.
  • Coca Cola and PepsiCo market aggressively to those minority groups that are most heavily affected by diet-related disease.
  • From seed to bottle, the best evidence estimates that it takes 340-620 liters of water to produce one liter of soda. (That one really drives me crazy — for something that not only we do not need but in fact would be much better off without.)
  • To silence those who would criticize Big Soda for its detrimental impact on health and the environment, soda companies shell out millions to health and environmental organizations. More on that in this post.
  • When any locality tries to pass anti-soda legislation, Big Soda and its trade organization the American Beverage Association hire marketing firms to create so-called “front groups” to fight the legislation. These front groups are designed to look like an independent grassroots campaign, but in reality they are just industry puppets. Another tactic Big Soda uses to fight unfavorable policies is to donate huge amounts of money to the locality’s obesity prevention efforts — only ones that don’t hurt their business, of course.

There’s a ton more where that came from. Check out the book if you’re interested.

 

 

 

Weighing In on the Importance of Weight

This may or may not be one of those posts where I just argue with myself. I notice these are getting more frequent.

The catalyst for my career as a nutrition advocate (which is still in its infancy) was my positive experience with weight loss. I consider it a major turning point in my life. I decided in my career I would use nutrition to reduce and prevent obesity so as to reduce and prevent weight-related chronic diseases. I think my understanding of the food system has grown much broader and clearer since then, but my feelings about weight have gotten murkier. I continue to believe that if food policies were radically changed in this country to support a healthy (not to mention sustainable, humane, and fair) diet, that in itself would prevent an obesity epidemic. But, as this sort of radical change may be quite far away, I recognize that we have to address obesity in our current system. Or do we? This is essentially the train of thought about weight that drives me crazy:

Obesity increases one’s risk of all of the most common chronic diseases in the developed world.

But plenty of people have those diseases who are not overweight, and plenty of people who are overweight are very healthy.

Poor diet is largely responsible for excess weight gain and for all of those chronic diseases.

Is obesity just a symptom of poor diet, which is the actual problem, or is it an independent risk factor?

Even thin people who eat poorly can be much worse off than heavy people who eat healthfully.

Diet, in a societal sense, is not a matter of personal responsibility. Farm policy and food processing and marketing determines what types of foods are most accessible and desirable.

A lot of other factors besides diet can make a person more susceptible to excess weight gain.

Who are we to decide how much weight gain is “excess?” Why is there so much weight stigma?

Weight stigma doesn’t help anyone lose weight. It puts heavier people at a disadvantage in the work force and in their social lives.

Even if it did, should the focus of public health be on weight loss?

Is the problem the weight, or is it more just the diet?

People should love themselves and accept each other no matter what their bodies look like.

But accepting your body shouldn’t make you complicit in your poor health.

But it’s not really your fault in the first place!

Is weight gain a “fault”? Isn’t that just stigmatizing obesity even more?

I know we should encourage everyone to eat better, especially people who are getting sick from their diet.

Is it necessary or productive to also encourage weight loss for sick, overweight people?

Is it necessary to encourage weight loss for people who aren’t sick as a preventative measure?

Would merely facilitating healthy eating without the associated weight stigma be just as effective in preventing disease?

My writing has moved away from promoting nutrition and exercise for slimness to promoting nutrition and exercise for health.

You shouldn’t worry about the number on the scale, but how you feel.

But losing excess weight really does help people reduce their risk for chronic disease.

I’m a hypocrite because I’m obsessed with the number on my scale.

Do you get a sense of the internal debate I’m having? Comments appreciated.

I’m No Nutrition Saint

Around this time of year, health-oriented news sites and blogs become filled with one piece after another on how to avoid holiday weight gain. It’s usually a series of tips on what to eat and what not to eat from the buffet table of your next family party, along with what you already know about living healthfully: everything in moderation, and get plenty of exercise.

As much as I want to encourage healthy practices that discourage excess weight gain, I think the focus on the holidays really misses the mark. Your health is determined by what you do the majority of the time, not the small fraction that is special occasions like Christmas and New Years. I am the first person to indulge when I’m celebrating. When confronted with a buffet of desserts, I will typically take one of everything. And I never pass up the opportunity to have a particularly special treat (like last weekend when I savored a decadent piece of “cheese” cake on a rare trip to one of my favorite vegan restaurants). I feel comfortable indulging heavily that 5% of the time, because 95% of the time I’m eating plants on top of plants.

And another thing: some of my good friends seem to think that I’m going to judge them for eating something that isn’t healthy. It is true that I do tend to mother my friends a bit, and I’m not afraid to tell them they need something green on their plate when we’re in the dining hall. In all seriousness, that is out of love — I would never think less of anyone because of what they’re eating, especially just on one occasion. How hypocritical would that be? I am no nutrition saint.

Here’s a perfect example: last week, I was visiting a friend and her family, who were getting ready to celebrate Christmas. She texted me beforehand to ask if I was “morally opposed” to decorating a gingerbread house because it’s so bad for you to eat. It was a little disheartening to know that she thought I might be that rigid and judgmental. I fiercely want to hold the food industry accountable, sure. But I don’t consider it my responsibility to police the eating habits of everyone around me. Like I said, I am the first person to recognize the value and comfort of decadent food every now and then. And I certainly have nothing against gingerbread houses at Christmastime.

Don’t worry so much about the holidays — that’s once a year! Worry about the other 50 weeks a little more. (Speaking of which, look out for my New Year’s resolution post later this week.)

Thanks for reading!

Turns out vegans can overeat too

To describe the past few weeks of my pilot trials of veganism, I bring forth this adage whose origin I do not know: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I should start by explaining that progressing to complete (minus honey) veganism was really not much of a change for me in the first place. People are asking me if it’s hard, but I already transitioned to eating mostly plant-based a while ago, so just kicking out the occasional dairy or egg product is much more of a matter of will power than of planning or learning. I certainly know how to eat this way at home and in the dining halls. Restaurants are another story now, because usually it was when I’d eat out that I’d permit myself to eat some animal products. Now, though, I have to ask waiters much more frequently about ingredients and substitutions unless there are vegan designations on the menu, which is happening more and more often. Family functions are also new territory. Thanksgiving will be…interesting. And desserts—I skip tasting sweets that I would have probably tasted before, because most baked goods have butter or eggs in them. It’s less disappointing than I thought it would be, actually, because it’s not about calories anymore; it’s about my values, and I take a lot of comfort in that. Besides, now I get to worry less about overeating.

Or do I?

Now, I’ve only been eating this way strictly for a few weeks now, but the couple pound creep-up I’ve been noticing on the scale over the last several months seems to be continuing, to my horror. (For those of you rolling your eyes at me, I know I’m still at a perfectly healthy weight, I just feel like I’m losing control when this happens.)

I think it may have something to do with the spectacular plant-based shmorgasbord that one of the dining halls on campus whipped up for the Food Day celebration last week, where I ate two helpings of everything and three helpings of vegan ice cream (which is no health food, mind you). It also might have something to do with alcohol. I feel like because I’m eating less desserts I can drink more or more often, but those calories add up fast. I also may just be subconsciously licensing myself to eat more food in general because it’s vegan.

My slightly insane food anxieties aside, the point is that simply removing animal products from your diet is not enough to lose weight or prevent weight gain. I still maintain that the higher proportion of your diet is whole plant foods, and the lower the proportion of your diet is animal based and highly refined foods, the easier it is to keep weight off. But alcohol, sugar, oil, and refined flour are all made from plants, and thus moderation is key in a vegan diet as in any other.

Ever since I initially lost a significant amount of weight in high school and had to learn how to keep it off, I’ve had to work hard on my diet and exercise. It’s gotten to be much more a part of my routine, and I love eating healthy foods for how they taste and how they make me feel. But my weakness for rich and sweet foods hasn’t gone away, and it’s something I actively have to resist all the time. I’m just not one of those people who can eat whatever they want without gaining weight. If I were, I’d probably be pursuing an acting career and never would have become interested in nutrition. But I digress. What I’m trying to convey is that even though eating fewer animal products is beneficial for a myriad of reasons, don’t be fooled into thinking that it means you can eat as much as you want if, like me, you feel the need to watch your weight. I could write a whole separate post (or several) about my body image and whether my diligence is justified considering I’m in perfectly good health, but that’s a different issue.

That got more personal that I expected. Oh well. Peace, love, plants.

A Plant Strong Declaration Part II

You probably don’t remember, but my second post ever on this blog almost a year and a half ago detailed my commitment to minimizing the amount of animal products in my diet, completely eliminating terrestrial meat (poultry, beef, lamb, pork) but still eating small amounts of dairy, eggs, and fish on a regular basis. This has been very easy for me, thanks to the excellent dining services at my university and the open-mindedness of my family. I have been able to maintain a diet that is based mainly on grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. That being said, I’ve never really gone out of my way to avoid relatively healthy food items containing a bit of dairy and eggs if there wasn’t a vegan option, and I would default to fish if there wasn’t a healthy vegetarian option, like most of the meals I ate in France this past summer (man, do they eat a lot of cheese, butter, and eggs over there). I won’t go into detail here about why I came to that conclusion back in May 2014; you can go back and read it if you’re interested.

Recently though, I have begun to feel like even this amount of animal product consumption doesn’t align with my values, partly because even farms that produce pasture-raised meat and dairy are not better for the environment, from my point of view, because they actually use more resources and produce more greenhouse gases per ounce of food produced than inhumane factory farms. As for fish, at the current levels of world seafood consumption, we as a society are unintentionally depleting the oceans and destroying marine ecosystems for a food that is not necessary for our survival or health. Even if I don’t have reason to believe that the world has to give up animal products entirely to ensure the sustainability of the food system, the amount of meat and dairy consumed per person that would be sustainable (maybe a couple of ounces per week) is so small that I want to move as much money as possible out of that industry and into plant-based food, starting with me. The other thing that appeals to me about a completely plant-based diet is that most of the weight gain-promoting foods that I tend to crave have dairy or eggs in them (i.e. baked goods and desserts), so I would naturally eat less of those foods and be less worried about gaining weight (although I do acknowledge that I should be a lot less concerned with my weight than I am, but I am far from immune to body image problems). Of course, there are wonderfully decadent plant-based desserts out there, but it does make dessert even more special and rare.

So from here on out, I’m going 99% plant-based. That means that for all intents and purposes I will tell people that I’m a vegan, but I’m not necessarily never going to eat an animal product again. For starters I don’t plan to avoid honey, which some vegans do, but from what I know about honey production it doesn’t conflict with my values — if you have information to the contrary, please comment on this post. But I also feel that it’s not necessary or desirable to miss out on certain traditional dishes, especially for Jewish holidays, that contain animal products, like the chicken broth in the matzo ball soup at Passover, or the bagels and lox to break the fast on Yom Kippur. But those occasions occur a handful times per year, which is probably, to be honest, the level of worldwide animal product consumption I envision ideally if we really want to stabilize and reverse climate change and truly nourish the growing world population in a sustainable way.

I want to add a caveat: I know that it is far easier for me to make this transition than it is for most, and I am under no grand illusions that the public can make this sudden switch to a whole foods, plant-based diet. I am fortunate enough to have means, an education, an educated family and peer group, and particularly convenient access to fresh produce and satisfying and nutritious vegan meals, all of which have encouraged me gradually toward this decision. I also happen to really love vegetables and vegan food, if it’s cooked well and has enough variety.

I know that I cannot expect most to see the food system from my point of view, and certainly not right away. I am not only committing to (99%) veganism here in this post, but also to never try to make someone feel guilty about the way they eat. But I will continue to write about the injustices and abuses I learn about, and I will certainly answer honestly when someone asks me why I eat the way I do, in the hopes that more people will realize that the conventions of the food system as it is now conflict with their values. I can only hope that through my own and others’ advocacy that the cultural paradigm shift towards a less processed, more plant-based diet will gradually continue in the years to come.