Whose Yardstick is it Anyway?

My yardstick. I’m going to use it more often.

Two news stories this week inspired this post. The first one is about fitness instructor Cassey Ho, who created this video after receiving a barrage of body-shaming comments on social media.

In the video, she has the opportunity to change all the parts of her body that have been shamed in the comments. She creates thinner thighs, a smaller waist, a bigger butt and boobs, a more sculpted face and she even changes her eye color. At first she looks in the mirror pleased with these changes, but in a few seconds, her expression changes to dissatisfaction. The video ends with the message, “What would you change?” Cassey said that she created it to help combat body shaming.

The other news story was about supplement company Protein World and their new ads for their “weight loss collection” products crap featuring the words “Are You Beach Body Ready?” and a picture of a typically unachievable-by-most-people body of a woman in a bikini (there is a counterpart ad with a similarly unrealistic-for-most male body). Thankfully some people who saw these ads responded with acts of civil disobedience, vandalizing them with their own messages such as “Your body is not a commodity,” “Each Body’s Ready,” and my personal favorite, “Fuck off.” These women are saying something, and it’s that they don’t want Protein World telling them that they must look like the woman in the ad in order to feel allowed to go to the beach. Responding to the criticism, Protein World tweeted:

protein world BS tweetSubtext: why make your insecurities our problem when you should be making them our profit!

Fat people are body shamed for not looking like the cultural ideal; then someone like Cassey Ho, who is the cultural ideal, is body shamed for not looking enough like the cultural ideal?? What the hell. I’m not saying one body type should be shamed while the other shouldn’t; I’m saying these body-police will never be happy any which way.

Lena Dunham showing her “less-than-perfect” but perfectly average naked body on television is treated as an act of heresy, the message loud-and-clear: “Your body is wrong, please don’t show it to us anymore.” I spend a lot of time watching HBO, and there is plenty of nudity, and I don’t recall anyone else ever getting questioned about why they are spending time naked on TV.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about fed up on being told how I need to look in order to be socially acceptable, on the beach or in a dress. It started young for me, when my mother implied I probably shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops because my arms were too big or dresses with elasticized waists lest I end up looking like a potato sack tied in the middle with a string (she didn’t say it to be mean – she really thought she was being helpful!). And now we have internet trolls and the weight loss industry to constantly remind us how “wrong” our bodies are. We have Dr. Oz shaming us into buying unproven weight loss products he endorses. We have the media reinforcing the stereotypical ideal by rarely showing bodies of diverse sizes (not to mention colors) in TV and movies.

What happens when we start to use all these external yardsticks of beauty instead of making up our own minds about ourselves? We stop living a life that is authentically our own. We go on diets that don’t work at best and hurt us at worst. We lose interest in all the things that make us interesting, exchanging them for a full-time focus on making ourselves “right” according to everyone else.

I’m not buying it anymore. I’m not using someone else’s idea of beauty to determine how I feel about myself. I’m expanding my beauty palate every day by looking at diverse bodies and seeing what is right about them (answer: everything!). I’ve become so successful at this that now when I hear body criticisms of any sort, it’s like hearing something spoken in Greek (note: I do not speak Greek).

So thanks internet trolls, Protein World, the rest of the diet industry, the conventional fashion industry and Hollywood, but I don’t need your advice on my body anymore. I’ll take it from here. I’ve got my own yardstick.

Guilt Free Eating

lady baking
Totally not my Grandma.

I was in one of my favorite restaurants the other day, a cafeteria-style salad-and-sandwiches place, and while waiting to pick up my order at the other end of the line, I gazed fondly at the display of luscious-looking desserts (many of them gluten-free or vegan or pasture-raised-and-massaged or…hey, it’s LA). That’s when I noticed a little sticker on the sneeze guard that said “Our desserts are made with all-natural ingredients that your grandmother would recognize.”

Ehhh, I don’t know…it just rankled.

I understand the rational for the whole back-to-basics all-natural-organic cooking movement. It was an inevitable response to the many years following World War II where food became more and more processed, convenient and full of ingredients that many of us couldn’t pronounce (some of which are preservatives which make our food safer). For a long time, I was a huge proponent of this movement. I loved organic, natural, local…whatever sounded the least processed was what was going in my grocery cart. It’s a completely privileged way to be able to live and I knew I was lucky. But the downside of thinking this way about food was an intense feeling of guilt whenever I bought plain ol’ conventional broccoli from my local big-chain supermarket.

Guilt: a hallmark of so many modern ways of eating.

It isn’t just the organic and/or local movements that seem peppered with this emotion. It’s everything we must feel guilty about these days: calories, fat, carbs, too much sugar, not enough fiber, not natural enough. I was enjoying dessert after a very nice dinner with a crowd of people recently when I heard at the end of the table, “Is the red velvet cake worth the calories?” A former long-time dieter, I heard the twinge of guilt immediately: How bad will I feel if I gain two ounces after eating this cake? (And by the way, it should never be a question. Red velvet cake – hell, any cake – is always worth the calories if it’s what you want).

Trader Joe’s has a line of Reduced-Guilt diet foods (great blog post about that here), the implication being that we naturally feel guilty when we eat the non-Reduced-Guilt foods. Since when did guilt become the bedfellow of eating? Food is not morality. Food is just food. Like it? Eat it. Then shut up about it.

Back to that little sticker that annoyed me so. I don’t remember my Grandmother ever baking so much as a Pillsbury Cookie. She worked in a factory for a living and spent much of her time dieting, then cared for my Grandfather after he fell profoundly ill. Should our sweet little grannies also feel guilty if they didn’t spend their time in the kitchen whipping up all-natural baked goods and wholesome meals? What if your grandmother ate carrot-and-dirt soup in the old country and hated it and prefers processed convenience foods? Maybe that wasn’t the intention of the sentiment on the sticker, but that was the message I was getting. Not using all natural ingredients? Buying a pre-made frozen chocolate cake instead of baking it from scratch? Oh the shame. Maybe it would have been enough for them to just say “We use all natural ingredients, yum” without the misguided assumption about our grandmas.

I am not trying to malign natural or organic or local or healthy eating. I think those are all wonderful choices to have available. I am saying that guilt should have no part in any of it because it begins to limit the availability of those options. If someone chooses to strictly eat a certain way, let it not be born out of a sense of doing something wrong.

Feeling guilty about eating blunts the enjoyment that we get from food. It messes with a healthy relationship to food. From my own experience, feeling guilty (over the perception of “too many” calories) often led me to eat either more than I wanted or less, and not even enjoy it. Let’s get over our guilt hangover and leave it where it really belongs: with the $60 billion diet industry. Because guilt should have no place in eating.

What’s Your Leanest Livable Weight?

By Orcunkoktuna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Traci Mann, PhD and professor at the University of Minnesota (and co-author of several of the papers listed on my Scientific Lit page), was featured recently in this LA Times article talking about why we should give up dieting. I’m pretty excited, as you can imagine, anytime a HAES®-minded professional gets some serious traction in the media!

Professor Mann doesn’t mince words right out of the gate:

“You can stop dieting and still be healthy,” Mann said in an interview about her new book, “Secrets From the Eating Lab,” an overview of dieting, willpower and health. And if you’ve lost weight on a diet only to regain it, she said, “it’s really not your fault” but more likely the result of your biology, stress and the allure of “forbidden fruit.”

Preach sister! The article went on to say:

If you want to stay thinner than your body’s natural range allows, Mann said, “you’re going to be dealing with that five or six times every day — meal times, snack times, when you should be exercising. It’s going to have to become a huge main focus of your life. That just seems crazy to me.” (emphasis mine)

Crazy doesn’t even begin to cover it. This was the life I led for a chunk of time, and it left little time for other, happier pursuits. Like blog writing!

Professor Mann advocates for something she calls the “leanest livable weight,” which she describes as “a weight you can maintain while having a normal life. If it’s a weight you cannot maintain, that is not your leanest livable weight.” I don’t love the use of the word “lean” because I think it implies a certain image of thinness, something that many of us will never come close to achieving. But I understand what she is saying and frankly it’s coated in enough honey that even HAES® skeptics might find it palatable. And I’m all for making the non-diet message as accessible to as many people as possible.

As I thought more about this concept of leanest livable weight, it struck me that I was there: my life is livable, normal (well, normal for me) and enjoyable, and my weight is now stable. My leanest livable weight means I get to enjoy two slices of pizza for lunch and some frozen yogurt after to celebrate a friend’s birthday. That’s livable.

Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again will apparently include some tips to help improve eating habits. One example was to eat a vegetable before (not with) a meal to cause you to eat less of the meal. So, while I think eating vegetables is great, I’m not necessarily for “tricking” my body into anything. If I eat less than I need, I’ll know it in an hour. If you like your vegetable with your main entrée, eat it that way and just focus on how your stomach feels as you eat. That said, starting your meal out with a salad isn’t the weirdest or most unpleasant thing a person can do. I’m crossing my fingers that her eating tips aren’t restrictive in nature and are just easy things to do to encourage better eating.

I can’t say whether I recommend this book or not because I haven’t read it yet, but it looks promising, and I’ll get behind almost anything that shows the diet industry for what it is: pure profit on a shoddy failure of a product. I just purchased it online so I’ll let you know in a few weeks if it’s worth a look from a HAES® perspective.

Calories In=Calories Out=Bullshit

If I had a nickel for every time someone talking about weight loss said to me “It’s just calories in/calories out, right? Just eat less and move more!” I’d be able to retire on a beach in Hawaii with a big fat Mai Tai always at my fingertips. Alas, no one has paid me anything to listen this sort of horse manure so now it’s my turn to disabuse everyone of this ridiculous notion.

In case you have been spared this silly platitude, I’ll give a little background. It all starts with the idea that 1 pound of fat = 3500 kilocalories (or what we know as just “calories”). This estimate was derived by researcher Max Wishnofsky, MD, in 1958, for who knows what reason. The derivation of the math is pretty straightforward (skip this if math puts you in a coma):

  1. 1 pound = 454 grams (fact!)
  2. 1 gram of fat is estimated to equal 9 calories
  3. Human adipose tissue is estimated to contain around 87% lipids.

So then… 454 g adipose tissue x 87% x 9 calories = 3,555 calories/pound of fat (rounded up from 3,554.82)

Then it was rounded down to 3,500 calories because, hey, it’s just easier to remember so why the hell not? The idea is that if you reduce your caloric intake by 3,500 calories a week, then you will lose a pound of fat a week. There’s a ton of rounding and estimating going on here, and yet people cling to this calculation like it came down written in stone from Mount Sinai as the 11th Commandment.

But let’s pretend for one moment that this calculation works. So you reduce your caloric intake weekly by 3,500 calories a week (500 calories a day) and that takes care of the Calories In part. Now you just need to rev up your Calories Out half of the equation in the form of ramping up your exercise. If you’re managing the 500-calories-a- day-less deal and exercising too, then you can definitely lose even more than 1 pound a week, right?

Oh…except we forgot something. There’s another part of the equation… it actually looks like this:

Calories IN:


Calories OUT:

Exercise AND Metabolism.

Oopsy, we forgot that tiny little factor – our metabolism (specifically something we call Resting Metabolic Rate, or RMR, the calories you burn while at rest, which accounts for 60-70% of our total energy expenditure). And it turns out that our metabolism is not something of which we are completely in control. This is borne out in science time and again; in fact, I recently had the pleasure of supervising the research project of a dietetic intern whose research consistently showed that RMR decreased with intentional weight loss. You can check out this particular research here and here and here and here and here and here. Sometimes the RMR remained low throughout the entire study, occasionally it eventually returned to normal, but in most of these studies the weight lost also began to return within the study period.

What happens when you start to eat less? Your body doesn’t know you’re just trying to lose weight for the sake of vanity or a misguided belief that it will make you healthier. No – after a few pounds are lost, your body eventually senses that you are in a place of food insecurity, and so to save your life it slooooows down its engine, the metabolism. Now you are eating less but also burning less in the way of your RMR – this is essentially your body’s way of maintaining homeostasis – stable internal conditions. Because that’s what the body wants more than anything – to remain at homeostasis. You might think you can compensate for this decrease in metabolism by exercising more – except that your metabolism will continue to compensate in the downward direction still as it continues to perceive this energy imbalance. This alone does not explain why most weight loss attempts end in lost weight being regained, but it’s a good start (I can think of some other reasons: unpalatable, unsustainable diets and hunger. Lots of hunger.).

Many health professionals have given up on this equation because they know it just doesn’t work all that well. Some researchers are working on new mathematical equations that will better predict how much a person should eat to lose weight and maintain the loss. Because – and this is dripping in sarcasm – we should definitely be eating according to a mathematical equation.

For me it all goes back to the idea of homeostasis. Our bodies want to remain in happy equilibrium, and they have amazing mechanisms to help us do so. Two of these mechanisms are a sense of hunger and a sense of fullness, which is why it is so important for us to use those internal mechanisms to guide our eating. Yep, back to the ol’ Intuitive Eating we go!

I think we’ve done a lot of damage with dieting over the years by ignoring those internal cues and trying to eat-by-the-numbers. Let’s forget this bad science and start paying attention to what our bodies tell us.