Like Stealing Candy from Babies

Boo! Now gimme my candy!

So, I just found out from this blog that The Switch Witch is actually a thing. It’s a Halloween thing, and it’s kind of a horrible thing, but not in the fun Halloween way.

What’s The Switch Witch? Apparently it’s the Halloween version of The Tooth Fairy, except in my opinion way weirder. After kids have finished collecting their Halloween candy, The Switch Witch (presumably a well-meaning parent) comes along, takes the candy and replaces it with toys, thus sparing the kiddos from being exposed to all that sugary, evil (sarcasm!) candy.

I can only imagine that this started sometime in the last 15 years during the meteoric rise of the obesiepipanic and subsequent food fear hysteria. All that sugar can’t be good for our little ones right? Not when there is so much obesity out there, just waiting to get them! Won’t someone please think of the children!?

I get it. It’s hard enough as a parent to get your kid to eat a regular meal with some vegetables without the specter of all that Halloween booty hanging around. I know that many parents are constantly worried that their kids are going to end up nutritionally deficient and it will be all their fault. It’s a big responsibility to be a parent and everyone is trying their best.

But this Switch Witch thing. At best, it’s misguided. At worst, it has the potential to kick off a lifetime disordered eating, especially around candy which – hello! – exists even after childhood ends. That’s right, your child is going to grow up and continue to live in a world where he or she is confronted with candy practically on a daily basis (especially if they work in an office). And you know what food tastes best? Forbidden foods. So when your adult child is eventually faced with that most forbidden of foods, candy, and there’s no fun toy being offered in its stead, what do you think is going to happen? They simply will not be prepared to deal with the barrage of sweets the modern world presents.

Kids know when foods are being restricted. They become experts at sneaking food. Some become little food hoarders. They go to school and find ways to get it. Research has shown that when highly palatable “fun” foods are restricted, kids eat more of them (and also end up larger than they might be otherwise). Your kids are smart – just like you are raising them to be! They won’t be fooled by this kind of restriction, and in fact it will end up doing exactly the opposite of what you hoped to do, which is to make them into healthy eaters.

My suggestion? Use Halloween candy as a way to teach kids that all foods can fit into a healthy diet. This takes away the power sugary foods (or any particularly desirable foods) might have and allows kids to explore all foods freely (because that, after all, is what learning to eat is all about).

Here are some ideas to try:

  1. Give your kids some control over when they eat their candy. Use the Division of Responsibility and choose meals and snacks when your child can include some of their Halloween booty. It doesn’t have to be every meal, but it also doesn’t have be so infrequent as to feel the food is being restricted. When your kids are very young, you can limit their control and choose when to include the candy, and then gradually give them more responsibility as they get older.
  2. Does your kiddo seem especially sugar-obsessed? When including candy (or any sweet) in a meal, consider serving it at the same time as the main meal, rather than saving it for after the meal. Saving certain foods for the “reward” after a meal teaches that the other foods are merely to be tolerated to get to the special reward food. If this is a new practice in your home, at first your kids will probably gobble up the candy before the rest of the meal. But over time, they will tire of that and start to explore the other foods available. If you choose to do this, just make sure they know there are no seconds on dessert (unlike the other foods served).
  3. Don’t let your kids graze all day on candy – or any food, for that matter. Grazing will lead to children not being hungry at meal times, or may lead to overeating. Kids need structure around eating; generally three meals a day and three snack opportunities between meals works well.
  4. Teach kids about the differences between foods without labeling them “good” or “bad.” Messages such as, “We get vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables that help our body to run,” and “Candy is a fun, tasty food that we can enjoy but we don’t need it for our body to grow” teach about nutrition without judgement.

Read more about incorporating “forbidden” foods from the guru of childhood nutrition, Ellyn Satter.

So while The Switch Witch is not nearly as mean as this:

…it does teach the wrong message about “forbidden” foods and eating. Happy Halloween!

Dinner in Tehran

Persian food Zoolbia_Bamieh
Does not come with calorie count.
Nothing reminds me that we live within a dysfunctional food culture so much as a dinner with people from another country.

My good friend from Iran, who is also a dietitian, invited us to a party at her apartment recently. Her brother (also from Iran) was there, as well as her husband and cousin who are also Persian-Americans. She is a great cook and put on a lush spread which included many hors d’oeuvres, two lasagnas (meat and vegetarian), quinoa salad (she is such a good cook I even liked the quinoa), and later, cupcakes and a Belgian chocolate cake. Lordy, I love a lady who can appreciate a quality chocolate cake!

We all ate heartily of both lasagnas and salad over good conversation (which was the true centerpiece of the meal, really). Afterward she showed us photos of their recent trip home to Iran. Being an amateur food anthropologist, what interested me most were the pictures of food. Food at all the family get-togethers. Exotic foods that involved pomegranate syrup and other ingredients I’ve never tasted. Big spreads that did not look low carb/high protein or low fat/high carb or low protein/low fat or anything remotely resembling a diet. Obviously family members coming home from long distances is a big deal and deserves some serious food celebration, but I also got the sense that eating well on a regular basis is not uncommon for my friend and her countrypeeps.

We started talking about food and eating. My friend’s brother told us with a sly smirk, “The thing that accompanies a Persian meal most often is guilt.”

“Guilt??” I said. Of course — the dieting guilt!

“Yes, like when you’ve eaten so much already and are full and then your aunt says, ‘You didn’t try my tahchin! I know it isn’t as good as your mother’s…’ and then you have to eat it so her feelings aren’t hurt.”

I had to laugh as I imagined someone getting a guilt trip in here in the U.S. for not eating enough. I think it used to happen. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t happen much now.

My friend has always been a hearty enjoyer of good food. While she naturally likes many “healthy” foods, I have never heard her talk about eating for weight or feeling guilty for eating anything (and one time, after a “small plates” dinner concluded at a restaurant, she leaned over and said, “I’m starving. When can we get some real food??”). I have never known her to skip dessert. She once looked at me forlornly and said, “Glenys, if I ever gain weight, I will just have to be fat because I like food so much I could never go on a diet.” A woman in her 30s that had never even contemplated some sort of food restriction during her lifetime struck me with surprise – I know almost no one like that! (In all honesty, I know exactly two other people who are like that. Also not originally from here.)

She is the kind of eater I had always wanted to be: an appreciator of good food who eats and then doesn’t worry about it. She once told me she must have an afternoon coffee with a pastry – it just wouldn’t be right to have one without the other. In a world without dieting, this seems like a normal desire. Having spent years in the dieting trenches, it is still hard for me to not think of this as pure decadence that will lead to weight ruin (don’t worry, I’m more or less over that). A pastry with coffee or tea is the most normal thing in the world for many people, as it should be.

Back to the party. I asked, “Is there a word in Farsi that means ‘diet’?” “No…” both ladies said. A few seconds went by and one of them said, “Wait, yes…rejim…it’s a French word.” Indeed, the word for “diet” in French is régime. I love that Farsi doesn’t even have its own word for self-induced-starvation. That it literally is a foreign concept.

After that, we all had a slice of cake and a cupcake. None of us except my (self-named) Remorseless Eating Machine significant other could finish the dense, rich cake, but no one felt deprived. No thoughts of rejim even crossed our minds.

Now, contrast this with a scene in my partner’s workplace the following week. He had brought in some donuts and was offering them around to his co-workers. The first person took one and pleaded, “Please, next time, don’t even stop to offer me one because I can never say no.” Another person took one and said, “I can have this because I worked out last night!” A third said, “You’re going to get diabetes from eating that.”

Dudes, it’s a donut. It does not have the power of The Dark Side of The Force to strike you dead on the spot, or even just kinda ruin your life a little. It’s. One. Donut. I’ve addressed this before: within a balanced, satisfying diet, one donut will do nothing more than simply serve as a delicious treat.

But that’s how screwed up our national food culture is. In fact, we don’t have a food culture – we have a diet culture. It has become harder and harder to find people whose lives have not been touched by dieting in some way. And not only is it boring as hell, it’s damaging to our mental and physical well-being too.

Our media gives plenty of lip service to the U.S.’s high rate of metabolic-type diseases (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension), especially when compared to other countries, yet we are obsessed with eating less and “being healthy” (read: being thin). Can we put two and two together here and get that our obsession with weight loss and restriction is not helping?! (it’s not even making us thin never mind healthy)

Eating at my friend’s party let me imagine what it would be like to grow up in a culture with almost no familiarity with dieting. A culture that experienced food with gratitude and pleasure, not fear. A culture that provided an abundance of food, when it has it, for its children to learn to honor their appetites and trust their bodies to guide them in their eating so that as adults they can approach food in a completely relaxed way.

We shouldn’t have to imagine that. We shouldn’t have to leave where we are to experience this kind of food freedom. We can start to create it here and now.

Check it out: Dietitians Unplugged Podcast!

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Episode 2 coming soon!

Boogie Boards, Bicycles and Body Image

beachAs summer gives way to fall (well, not in LA, it is still blazing hot as I write this in the middle of October), I’m thinking back to my August staycation-vacation.

One of the reasons I love staycationing in LA is that it’s got everything I love in a vacation: heat, beach and no need to fly anywhere. We took advantage of some of LA’s best: biking along the Pacific Ocean bike path (“The Strand”), and of couple of glorious beach days.

We own boogie boards but had never quite mastered the art of catching a nice wave all the way into shore. On this day, though, the waves were perfect for it. We waded through a kelp forest to get to the sweet spot and then sped inward to shore wave after wave after wave – pure, unadulterated fun. On one turn, I passed by a couple of young teenage girls gingerly wading in the shallows, their dad recording their every pose on his phone. Wearing a look of manic joy on my face, I screeched, “THIS IS AWESOME!!!!” as I passed by them; the look on their faces was best described as mild, pleasant embarrassment for this middle-aged lady. However, not long after, I saw those girls back in the water with their own rented boogie boards and wearing the same thrill in their faces and no longer paying attention to their dad with the camera (or the middle-aged lady, probably).

Things I didn’t think about while boogie boarding at the beach: how my body looked in my swimsuit. I am WAY into body positivity and feeling good about oneself and accepting what we have now, but this is a process. After at least 34 years of being so focused on the size, shape and look of my body (I became aware of my body in that way around age 10), it’s not easy to just stop (It’s easy to decide to stop. But after that…process). The beach, however, is one of the places I am happiest and most in-the-moment and therefore least aware of how my body looks to others, despite being in the least amount of clothing. Maybe it’s all the other sensory input: sand on my feet, cold salty water on my skin and stinging my eyes, the sun warming and sometimes even burning my exposed skin, the waves crashing into me – I love all of this. I become aware of my body in another way that has nothing to do with how I look, and everything to do with how I am experiencing the world at that moment.

On another day, we rented bikes and rode along the bike path that follows the ocean. I haven’t ridden a bike with any frequency since I was in grade school. It was so fun!! I felt so lucky at that moment to live in Southern California and to be able to ride a bike. We rode to a restaurant in Playa Vista and had the most delicious sandwiches. Bonus: former child actor Anthony Michael Hall was having lunch in the same place!! (The Breakfast Club is seriously one of my favorite movies). It was a hot day and my honey and I were both sweaty. I probably looked pretty messy as I always do when I’m doing any sort of exercise or activity. As always, I was in my fat body. And once again, I just didn’t care. My body was a vehicle to enjoy these wonderful moments – how it looked was irrelevant.

I’m not saying that in order to appreciate our bodies we need to completely forget about what they look like. But once in a while, I think it can help. Boogie boarding and biking reminded me that our bodies are here to allow us to live life. In our appearance-focused culture, it can be all too easy to let worries about our fat bellies, thighs or hips, or our sweaty armpits or our disheveled hair distract us from the real living – the fun or the learning or the meaning of what we are doing. When we can let go and focus on those things, we truly become body positive.

The True Food Believers

Bananas toxicOne of the great things about Twitter is that you can get into interesting debates with all sorts of people who don’t agree with you. I actually think that is totally fun! One of the conversations I found myself in recently was with someone who was adamant that everyone should give up sugar (the glucose-fructose table sugar kind, and in general any fructose-containing food) in order to achieve good health. Obviously, I disagree.

Being an all-foods-fit kind of gal, I responded (and I’m paraphrasing a bunch of my tweets here), “That’s great if it works for you, but it’s not necessary for most and not sustainable either.”

Not satisfied with my response, this person then offered up as the ultimate evidence of its nefarious nature: the rationing of sugar during World War II and the decline of heart disease and diabetes during this time. But guess what else happened? Meat, butter and gasoline were also rationed. So it could have been the decrease in butter consumption or meat consumption – or the decrease in consumption of all of those foods combined – or the fact that people probably walked more because gas was rationed. We just don’t know enough to be able to say that the decrease in disease was due to decreased intake of one kind of food. (Nylon was also rationed, so pantyhose were also hard to come by. I think it’s obvious that the decrease in disease was due to all that unfettered ladies’ skin!)

The conversation went back and forth for a while, with this person insisting that sugar and fructose are the ultimate dietary evils, the cause of many metabolic diseases (providing one study on fructose and gout which was interesting but certainly not conclusive. I found other evidence that refuted this connection, so seems like the jury is still out on this one) and me in my stance that while I don’t believe sugar is a health food, there can be room for it in an overall healthy eating pattern, and that total restriction probably wouldn’t work for most people in the long term anyway. In the end, I said we’d have to agree to disagree and part ways on the conversation. And then he blocked me. So much for the sharing of ideas!

Certainly there is compelling evidence that sugar is not a “health food.” Other than pure energy in the form of glucose, there is not much nutrition it has to offer otherwise. I’ve read the various cases made against sugar and also carbohydrates, just as I’ve read the evidence against fat and high protein diets. It’s all very interesting and I’m always watching for any new compelling and useful nutrition science, but for now it seems like the only thing everyone can really agree on is that vegetables are good for us. And it’s always useful to remember that too much of anything is probably not great for us (broccoholics beware!).

But you know what? I get it. Dietary changes can be hard to make — even more so when they are related to weight loss, which often seems to be the goal (perhaps with the hope that weight loss will cure other problems). Because of the inherent nature of intentional weight loss (i.e., it doesn’t work in the long term) we sometimes look for more motivation to make those changes stick. That’s when we start demonizing foods, to convince ourselves that some foods or food groups are so toxic to our very beings that we must never eat them again. How else would you get through someone’s birthday party where some wonderful German chocolate cake was being served? How would you make it through the holiday party season, where every combination of carb/fat/protein is being passed in front of your face, and you there, with your deprived, hungry belly?

I dabbled in this demonization for a while myself. Sugar. Fat. Then meat. Then conventionally farmed produce. I convinced myself with increasing fervor over the years that each ousted food or food group was anathema to my good health. I convinced myself that I felt better with each of these restrictions, but the truth is, I didn’t. I don’t have severe food allergies that require restriction, and cutting those foods out only made me crave them more, and overeat on them furtively when no one was looking (not to mention the cost and inconvenience alone of trying to eat only organic and local).

Don’t get me wrong – there are foods I avoid because they really don’t make me feel good. Milk is one of them. I used to love very spicy foods – not so much now. It’s easy for me to avoid these foods because I don’t want to deal with the repercussions after eating them. Does that mean I should insist that everyone else avoid these foods because it will eradicate all their bodily ills? Of course not. I don’t even insist that everyone should become an intuitive eater or follower of HAES (but it is here for you if you like!).

If you have found the diet that works for you – and I mean really works, as in, you can do this and it hasn’t take over your life and made you miserable – great! If you have to cultivate an aura of intense food fear for yourself and everyone else around you in order to maintain this diet? You may have just joined the diet cult of The True Food Believers.

Check it out: Dietitians Unplugged Podcast!

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