February 2009

“Eat Like a Kid”

Come on, confess; you love candy. You want to eat chocolate. Cookies, ice cream. And then there is the way you dialogue in your own head, that either allows you to do it some of the time, all of the time, none of the time.

Everyone has their own inner dialogue. I call it ‘tape loops’. No, not fruit loops, although you might want that as well! I call them ‘tape loops’, because they are the voices in our head that are usually on automatic pilot. They criticize, congratulate, or simply tell us what, when, and how much we should or shouldn’t eat. I call this: eating from the head, and not the stomach.

My ‘tape loops’, after spending years dieting when I was a dancer were: “I shouldn’t eat that”. Of course, there was the rebellion from that by eating as much of it after a show was over, and I didn’t have an audition!

When I changed careers and became a therapist, I attempted to solve this rut and stop dieting. (I figured no one ever fired their shrink for gaining a few pounds!) Thus ended the tyranny of criticizing myself anytime I wanted or ate foods that I thought wouldn’t ‘fit’ the dancer’s body I was always aspiring to have.

Doing this helped me to connect to my stomach; I call it ‘Eating Like a Kid’. A particularly young one because even as early as age 2, kids can begin to eat for reasons that have little to do with what their tummies tell them. They might eat to please mommy, or demand sugar because it provokes a fun fight where they get to feel strong and powerful. As early as age 2, kids can eat for reasons other than what their bodies tell them; even to help them soothe anxious or sad feelings.

Figuring out what you bring to the table when you serve dinner, (and I am not talking about the food here!) is a part of how you shape your kids eating habits. After spending hundreds of hours interviewing parents on their behaviors with their kids’ food, stemming from their own food legacy, or even tape loops, I have loosely grouped our behaviors into roughly 3 categories: (From my tape loops and rebellious nature, I find that I tend to fall closer to the under-involved category). You can see if you fit in anywhere:

1) Over-involved: You have a hard time relaxing and not worrying about how your child is eating. You may hover and feel the urge to tell your child when they are hungry, full and what to eat and have trouble when they eat in ways you aren’t comfortable with.

2) Under-involved: You tend to ignore your child’s eating behavior and you might be uncomfortable structuring your child more if they need the help. You may feel that paralyzed to say anything about your child’s food, and being comfortable with authoritative parenting when it comes to your kids’ eating habits.

3) Unrealistic standards: You have set high standards for your child’s eating habits either because these work for you and your diet, or you feel you have failed at having good eating habits and are determined that your child will only ‘eat healthy’.

So this is where we start. Figuring out our own attitudes and how this shapes our behavior around feeding is a part of giving our kids a healthy relationship with food. We want to keep our kids’ connected to their tummies, and preserve their ability to be moderate. So, depending on where you fall in the categories, you may find that you need to do more backing off, or be less rigid. Some kids may need help structuring, and you may need to help them transition from eating, so that they learn to wait while their brain sends the signal to their tummy that they are done, or full.

Food is the last thing you want to have to struggle with. My goal is to take the worry and fret out of feeding, and to help mealtime be a time for connecting and enjoyment. So see if while you are trying to help your child eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full, you too, can turn off your head, and try, like them, to ‘Eat Like a Kid’!

The ‘Nudge Factor’ and Weight Loss

No, I did not say the “Fudge Factor” and weight loss, much as that is what you are wishing for. Although, like I say with any of your favorite foods; yes, you can lose weight eating chocolate, ice cream, and okay, fudge, too.

But I am talking here about something they call the “Nudge Factor”. I was reading about it in the New York Times Magazine this weekend, where a phenomenon was described in Holland. Basically, they drew flies around the drain of the urinals in the men’s rooms in airports there, and found an 80% reduction in the spillage, or messes usually found. It seems that men really do love a target. My guess is that is that there might be a little hardwiring operative here, but the really interesting aspect is the simplicity of the environmental cue, and its powerful effect.

Unfortunately, weight loss and maintaining weight loss, is a much more complex issue. It goes beyond information about nutrition, or a rational understanding of what one ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t do. If it were simple, the diet industry would not be doing such a bang up business.

However, I am going to tilt this ‘nudge factor’ a bit, and rather than thinking of it simply as environmental cueing of behavior, I am going to think of ‘the nudge’ of behavior, in a ‘less is more’ manner.

There are two ways you could think of it, to see if you could pick one thing in your life, one of your habits with food and/or exercise, that you want to change. The two principles we are working with here are:

1) Subtle changes in your environment, or not so subtle, that help ‘cue’ you to do the thing you want to; i.e. put your sneakers on first thing in the morning after you get out of bed if you really want to push yourself to exercise, or keep the lights off in the kitchen after dinnertime and truly imagine the kitchen as closed.

2) Less is More. The idea that you need to pick some aspects of your eating or exercise that you can modify a little bit. Not too drastically since you stand more of a chance of losing the weight and then regaining it, if it really doesn’t fit into regular life. Think less ‘Diet,’ and more ‘Tweak’. So for instance, when you reach for your fourth handful of chips, stop at 3. Or perhaps 2. Slight modification.

Along with the less is more concept, (when you berate yourself that you didn’t get to the gym) do 3 sets of pushups. Start with two if you can’t do more, and keep your knees down. Again, start small. We are talking small modifications. Work up to 3 sets of reps, no more than 10, and you only need to try to do it 2-3 x a week. Over time, you will be amazed at how small ‘tweaks’ modify your behavior. Little bits add up, and when we are talking input output here of calories taken in and burnt, things start to happen. More importantly, your motivation will be sustained, as it will be more realistically built into your life.

I know you have to work a little harder to figure this out; I wish I could just come paint flies on your fridge. Although, hey, try that; it might just work!

Happy Tweaking!

“No One Ever Died of a Big Butt!”

retorted one woman back to her husband when he accused her of putting on a bit more room in the rumpus. Pointing to his belly fat, she accurately predicted that he had more of a chance of dying from his weight problem than she.

Too bad, so sad. This does seem to be accurate, men. Weight in the middle tends to squeeze the organs, as we heard yesterday on the Today Show from the editor of Men’s Magazine who is out with a book on getting rid of Belly Fat.

Despite the fact that men and women seem to struggle with weight in fairly equal numbers as adults, women do tend to put weight on in their butts, vs. their stomachs. (Of course there are body types where this is not the case.)

Hormones play a big role here, (surprise, surprise!) since we women tend to hold onto weight where we store estrogen: in our butts, hips, thighs, upper arms, and yes, of course, our stomachs. One of the quickest ways to redress this issue as adults, is to decrease alcohol, which makes our bodies hold onto ‘puff’ in those areas. Ever notice that if you are drinking regularly when you take some breaks and eat the same amount, you lose weight? Other tip: since we women already have generally more muscle mass in our legs, hips and thighs; designed for carrying kids around, do pushups! You want to increase the muscle mass and therefore metabolism, in your upper body!

But as I am talking her of female vs. male differences in weight gain, you can think about yourself as a preteen, or if you have kids, of your teenagers.

Since my work tends to be focused on kids and eating problem prevention, I am often consulting with parents of girls around age 8-12. This is a time when nutritionists tell me they tend to get the most referrals: from anxious parents who worry about the ‘puffiness’ or chunkiness that can appear in formerly thin girls.

Guys on the other hand, are building muscle mass, another fat burner, and want to chunk out. They have a way better shot at the fat turning into muscle with their hormones and biological predisposition toward developing more muscle mass during puberty. Hence, the trend toward girls beginning to diet, starting around middle and high school, and guys eating their parents out of house and home.

Having three girls myself, I too, have been hit with the complaints as my daughters hit puberty and put on weight where they are storing estrogen. I do my thing, warn them to stay away from dieting, and not to deprive themselves too much, but to eat consciously and in a balanced way, most of the time. They are going to be dealing with body and weight for the rest of their lives, as most women do, and I want to de-emphasize one particular moment in their growing period, and focus more on the eating habits that they have, which to me, have to include enjoying ‘pigging out’ with friends on candy. What can I say, I think that is an important bonding ritual. Obviously needs to be balanced.

But if you are a parent out there of a preteen and are worrying about the changes in your daughter’s body, try to focus more on their eating behaviors, and don’t let them diet. This can start a pattern of on-off eating, that can create more eating problems than if you wait out this period and see what happens as they are further into their teens, after their period starts.

And remind them: “No one ever died of a big butt!”

Happy Eating!