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Health Goals and New Years Resolutions: Diets & Calorie Tracking Apps May Not Be The Answer




Reaching a number on the scale shouldn't be the primary goal

Our culture is obsessed with body image. No one is immune to the messages that we receive from the time we're little kids forming our self esteem about striving to be at the “perfect” weight and size that society dictates. Low self esteem, eating disorders, and health problems are devastating, and a lot of the messaging around weight loss and fitness cause more harm than good. How do we reconcile the science that carrying too much weight has harmful health consequences in the long run with the importance of loving our bodies and using our intuition to eat well?


The science is clear: Being active and eating certain foods packed with nutrition is linked to better health outcomes. My argument is that reaching a certain number on the scale is secondary to how you feel. If you don't feel well mentally, and eating creates so much anxiety that you can't enjoy it, you can get in a destructive relationship with food. Once you have a better relationship with food and body image, you’ll be able to work towards better health outcomes, like lower blood sugar and reducing cancer risk.

It's not like we can completely avoid certain foods, as they are a big part of most social activities. Our weight and appearance are primary to our identity and feelings of self-worth, for men and women. If you lose weight for any reason, comments of “wow, you look good, did you lose weight?” are common. But don’t lose too much weight: “You’re too skinny,” or “you need to put on some weight.” Both types of comments hurt.

Even what we perceive as positive comments can be harmful if someone is battling disordered eating. I remember one client who actively battles Anorexia telling me that she had a hard time being around a family member who was always really fit and thin, who would tell her she looked great when she lost weight. Her eating disordered mind said "Yeah! That's right. Don't eat today. You're doing it!" At times, she had to decide that for her recovery she couldn't be around that family member. The fact is that many people struggle with eating disorders secretly. In fact, it's the terrible power of the eating disorder to stay hidden. A simple way of shifting this mindset for us to use compliments like, "You look so vibrant and beautiful today." "I love that outfit." "I'm so happy to see you."


My recent review of calorie counting apps revealed how strong the bias is towards weight loss. I really wanted to figure out how to maximize my health by knowing what I eat. I learned that I’m at high risk of breast cancer a few years ago, so I devoured scientific articles about nutrition and its effects on cancer risk. I need to know what’s in my diet so I can make the best choices for me. I’m also a competitive athlete, so my mindset shifted from not gaining weight (deeply ingrained messaging) to getting enough calories to maintain weight. It’s hard to find information about getting enough, rather than focusing on restriction. Our best focus in nutrition is creating a sustainable diet that helps us meet all our health goals. The information was there once I waded through the information on weight loss, but I thought about how this message reflects our society's obsession with it.


Food and nutrition have a role to play in any mental health discussion. Under stress, most of us change our eating in ways that impact how we feel. For example, extreme anxiety or depression leads to over or under eating. These eating patterns are used as a factor in diagnosing depression. In therapy, I often check with clients on nutrition and discover they are eating highly processed foods instead of those loaded with nutritional benefits. Eating mindlessly to try to fill emotional emptiness is common. Or the opposite, clients will come in to my office at 4 p.m, having not eaten all day. They forgot to listen to their body asking for energy. A foundation for healing from anxiety and depression is addressing our nutritional needs. Food is medicine of a sort.


When eating is the coping skill of choice

Eating can become a primary coping skill to soothe emotional distress. After all, when life feels out of control, food is predictable and controllable. When we are out of control with emotions or life circumstances are upsetting, it’s easy to turn to food. It’s also highly encouraged by our culture. “Feeling bad? Have a glass of wine or a bowl of ice cream!” The downside is when it's no longer pleasurable to eat because of the guilt or health consequences.

In the extreme, the use of control with food leads to eating disorders. These damage your health and can even be life threatening, so please seek professional support if you have concerns.


Who’s in charge here?

Doesn’t maintaining healthy weight mean having some control over food? True. But when your focus shifts to mindful awareness of how food affects you, you get to be in charge. Instead of being locked into a battle with food, you can make choices based on what you need and feel, and with more awareness of the positive and negative effects of those choices. You could choose to increase your fruits and veggies every day, noticing the increased lightness and energy you feel. You may decide to enjoy the holiday treats because they are here once a year. My hope for all of us is to be able to enjoy food without guilt. Food is not a moral choice.


How to start practicing mindfulness

Jan Chozen Bays book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food is a great introduction to using mindfulness practice with eating. I love the enclosed cd with guided meditations. There are a lot of great websites that explain how to be mindful when eating. My favorite evidence based course on mindfulness is the free online Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course based on Jon Kabat-Zinn at www.palousemindfulness.com.

These resources are helpful to begin practicing mindfulness. However, I believe it’s important to go further. Exploring how you use food to cope is important. Discover the deeply ingrained habits you have around food and where they came from. I believe understanding the nutritional components of food, the macros and micros, such as the calories, vitamins, etc. can be used within mindfulness & using tracking apps can help; However, focusing on them as a starting point can put you in a loop of trying to exercise control/power in your life and experiencing disappointment when you fall into your usual ways of coping.


Replacing food as a coping skill

Once you know the role food has in your life, you can explore what else gives you energy or calms you when you're upset. Brainstorm some ideas: Taking a walk, dancing, calling a friend, cuddling a pet, working on a project, looking at pictures of a happy place, reading a book, can be effective. It will take some effort to break habits. It's hardest at the beginning. Be patient with yourself and take it one step at a time. I encourage you to focus on adding foods (like the Mediterranean diet) instead of trying to avoid certain foods. Take a break from highly processed foods and sugar as a way to change your diet instead of “dieting.” Finding support with a partner or family member to try new recipes or share meals can really help.


Wishing you good health and happy eating! Amanda

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