Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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What does “healthy” look like?

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A little while ago I wrote about the importance of representation and how the health care industry is failing at it. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as saying “we’re going to use more diverse images in our marketing and materials”. Most organizations don’t take their own photos. Instead, most use stock photography sites from which staff select images. It’s not just health care that has a problem, it’s all media, and it’s the sites from which we source our images.

So many of the images I come across on the stock photo site we use at work are problematic. I’m not going to name the site because it really doesn’t matter which one it is, they’re all the same. Search the word “healthy” and you’ll likely come up with a lot of smiling, slim, glowing, youthful white people outdoors wearing athletic clothing or eating salad. Of course there might be one older person, a black person, and a “normal” (i.e. not model thin) person in the mix but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Fitness returns more of the same, minus the salad shots. On the other hand, when you search “fat” you come back with a bunch of headless torsos clutching their bellies, larger people drooling over fries, large people looking miserable, and a few “good” fat people engaging in physical activity – again, the exceptions that prove the rule. Then there’s the images of “healthy choices” in which the ubiquitous glowing youthful white woman is weighing a doughnut in one hand and an apple in the other as if this is all that healthy eating is about. Or how about the images of large women kicking “junk food” solidly away? How virtuous. Or the woman literally taking a pair of scissors to her stomach? Horrifying.

All these images do is serve to reinforce the popular beliefs that we hold around body size, health, and personal responsibility. To reinforce the stigma against larger bodies and the false assumption that smaller bodies are always healthy bodies and the result of healthy personal choices. It takes a lot of effort and consideration for people to choose images from these stock photo sites that don’t contribute to stereotypes. It’s worth that extra effort though to show that all bodies are good bodies and that your organization is for everyone, not just people who look a certain way.


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Response to: The Rise of the Anti-Diet Movement: Is it No Longer P.C. to Want to Lose Weight?

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Someone I follow on twitter recently shared this blog post: The Rise of the Anti-Diet Movement: Is it No Longer P.C. to Want to Lose Weight? by another dietitian, Janet Helm. In the post she mused about dietitians promoting themselves as “non-diet” and what this might say about other dietitians. She agreed with many points made by dietitians, quoted in RD/writer Cara Rosenbloom’s recent excellent piece for the Washington Post about non-diet dietitians, but seemed unwilling to go so far as to embrace the philosophy herself. She ended her post with the following questions: “Can’t we all get along? Can’t intuitive eating and body positivity coexist with losing weight?  Why must we line up on two sides?  Why the conflict?” I’m going to do my best to respond to these questions.

First, I too have asked that same question: “Can’t we all get along?” at times. Remember craisingate? Personally, I don’t think that as dietitians we have to agree on everything. It’s okay for us to have different perspectives and approaches. Also, in the case of diet vs non-diet, I don’t see it as an issue of getting along. Maybe I’m blissfully unaware, but I haven’t seen any “non-diet” dietitians attacking other dietitians for promoting weight management. I don’t see dietitians referring to themselves as “non-diet” as lining up on an opposing side or creating conflict. Rather, I see this identification as a way for dietitians to let prospective clients know that they do not promote weight loss as a goal. In a profession which so many believe our sole mission is to help people lose weight I think that it’s necessary for RDs who do not promote weight loss diets to make this clear up-front. I don’t believe the intent is to pass judgement on other dietitians who haven’t embraced the same approach, or to create a professional divide. However, I can see how a dietitian who has built a career around weight management counselling might see this new-ish movement as a personal judgement.

My friend Cheryl Strachan, aka “Sweet Spot RD” wrote an excellent blog post last week (while I was mulling over how best to respond to Janet’s post): Why I can’t help you lose weight. This heartfelt post explained why she would no longer work with clients on weight loss. Providing the current evidence on weight loss and health and the struggle she went through to reach this position. Rather than having me regurgitate all of the evidence here, I recommend you take a few minutes to go read it and then come back.

Done? Okay, great. So you’ll note that Cheryl mentions that when she studied nutrition in 2003 it was accepted without question that weight management was a significant part of being a dietitian. I can tell you that it was the same when I went back to uni to study nutrition in 2006. I’m not sure if things have changed since then. I suspect that they haven’t, at least not completely. It takes time for institutions and society to change. As a dietitian who has worked in weight management in the past I too have struggled to fully embrace health at every size. I understand why a fellow dietitian would ask: Can’t intuitive eating and body positivity coexist with losing weight? It’s an incredibly tough question and the answer is nuanced and it may not be the same for everyone.

I do believe that intuitive eating and body positivity can peacefully coexist with weight loss. However, I think that this can only be the case when weight loss is not the ultimate goal. For me, body positivity is appreciating your body as it currently exists and continuing to appreciate it if you gain weight or lose weight. It’s about treating yourself with respect and compassion and providing your body and mind with the nourishment they need. If you are doing these things with the clandestine goal of losing weight then you are doing yourself a disservice. That being said, it’s okay to want to lose weight. We live in a society that has conditioned us from a very young age to believe that being thin is important. It’s unrealistic to except this engrained belief to vanish overnight. It takes time to relearn to listen to your body and to treat it with respect when you’ve been viewing it as the enemy, a captor, keeping the real you the thin you hidden away. So, no, body positivity and weight loss can’t coexist but yes, body positivity and weight loss can coexist.

I think that as time goes on and nutrition programs update their curriculums, as old-school dietitians are more exposed to evidence regarding the harms of weight bias and weight loss diets, and the hold-outs retire, that things will change. After all, as dietitians we are supposed to provide evidence-based best practice and the evidence against weight loss diets is mounting. Eventually there will be no non-diet dietitians because that will be the approach we all take.


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A smile doesn’t hide your weight bias

 

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I completed an online course on weight bias and stigma for healthcare professionals last week. There was quite a bit that was good but there were a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way.

If you’re not already aware Obesity Canada states that, “weight bias refers to negative attitudes and views about obesity and about people with obesity. Weight stigma refers to social stereotypes and misconceptions about obesity. These social stereotypes and misconceptions include beliefs that  people with obesity are lazy, awkward, sloppy, non-compliant, unintelligent, unsuccessful and lacking self-discipline or self-control.” 

Weight bias and stigma can cause significant harm to fat people. In fact, they likely cause more damage to people than carrying extra weight itself does.

The course I took was very good about making this clear and provided the facts as well as showing how harmful weight bias can be to patients. However, there was a video with some experts that I felt undermined the message. Here are the quotes that bothered me:

“If weight loss was easy we wouldn’t have the current obesity epidemic that we have.” – Director of Research and Anti-Stigma Initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center

“People think that for someone who’s overweight all they need to lose weight is some self-control and trying harder to eat less and exercise more. If that only worked we wouldn’t have the problem that we have today. The causes of obesity are very complex…” – Director of Research and School Programs at the Yale Rudd Center

The Yale Rudd Center is well-regarded for their work in reducing weight stigma and both of these individuals quoted above are prominent in the field. At first glance what they’ve said seems innocuous. However, the fact that this was a course intended to combat weight stigma, the experts are saying that obesity is an “epidemic” and a “problem” runs counter to the message they’re trying to convey. It just goes to show how deeply ingrained weight bias is when the very experts trying to counter it are inadvertently perpetuating it. When you say that obesity is a problem then you are saying that fat people are a problem. And I don’t see how that’s not stigmatizing.

The other problem I had with the course were the case scenario videos they shared. There would be one video where staff and medical professionals were rude and unprofessional to patients regarding their weight. Then they would show a video that was intended to show a positive interaction. Really the only differences in the “good” videos were that the healthcare professional was all smiles and asked the patient if they could talk about their weight before advising behaviour change under the guise of promoting healthy behaviours rather than telling them directly to lose weight. To me, the message was the same, it was “you need to lose weight” delivered with a smile rather than scorn. There was still no looking at overall health to determine if weight loss was actually warranted, there was still no consideration of other causes of the presenting ailments, and there was still no recognition that simply telling people to eat healthier and move more (especially without first determining what their current lifestyle is like) is not an effective way to get people to lose weight.

Overall, I felt that the message of the importance of not perpetuating weight bias was lost when all the healthcare professionals were still delivering the message to their patients that they should lose weight. And yes, some people can benefit from losing some weight, but this should be determined with appropriate assessment and then weight management options need to be appropriately discussed with the patient. Simply telling someone, on the basis of their BMI, to eat less and move more with a smile is not helpful.

If you do happen to know of a good online weight bias course please let me know as I’m still looking!


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Representation matters and the health care industry is failing miserably at it

Source: UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

In relation to my recent posts about how a dietitian’s weight is not indicative of their professional capability, I’ve been thinking a lot about weight bias. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how we portray (or don’t portray, as the case may be) people who are considered to be overweight or obese.

At work, I often find myself advocating for more diversity in our images of people. But by that I always mean “maybe we should include images of some people who aren’t young and white”. It actually kind of blows my mind that every time a draft comes back from a graphic designer that EVERYONE is youthful and white. Anyway… That’s not what I wanted to write about today. It’s the fact that they are also ALWAYS thin. I get it, we’re in the business of promoting health and what would you picture if I asked you to picture someone healthy. You’d probably envision someone who’s trim, youthful, smiling. The fact of the matter is though that health comes in all shapes and sizes.

Representation matters. If you don’t see yourself in an organization’s images, or a magazine’s, or in the media, you’re not likely to relate to the messages they’re sharing. I’m not talking about showing pictures of headless obese bodies when we’re talking about obesity, as a matter of fact, I’d rather we all just stopped talking about obesity altogether but that’s another rant. I’m talking about when we choose an image for a campaign for oral health, or a social media post about sexual health, or a banner promoting your services. Whatever the case may be. Think about it, with more than half the population falling into the category of overweight, our healthy living (and really ALL promotional) messages are missing out on a huge proportion of the population. If we truly want to promote healthy lifestyles for all then we need to include everyone in our messages. Don’t make it about weight though. Weight loss should not be the message. The message should be that everyone, regardless of size, age, ability, or race is deserving of good health and can enjoy a healthy active lifestyle. That everyone is deserving of health care services. That regardless of size, your voice should be heard. It really stuck with me how in Hunger, Roxanne Gay wrote about becoming more invisible the larger her body became. This is not how things should be. Your worth should not be inversely proportionate to your weight.

If you want to start including more positive non-stereotypical images of people with obesity in your work, check out Obesity Canada’s image bank or Yale Rudd Centre’s image gallery.


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Just because it’s “always delicious” doesn’t mean it’s not a diet book

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Last week I attended the Ambition Nutrition Symposium in Toronto, to which I was fortunate enough to win free tickets. The theme of the conference was “bringing it home” and was intended to help translate nutrition theory into the kitchen and onto client’s plates. While I’m not sure the day really succeeded in that regard, I still found it to be an interesting conference with a variety of speakers and delicious food (thank you George Brown culinary students!). That being said, from my perspective, there was an elephant in the room. That elephant was the tension between professions and dietary dogma.

We started the day with a great presentation by Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Centre, among numerous other titles. He spoke about the difficulty we often face when addressing food-related issues through policy as something that benefits one area (e.g. nutrition) may cause unintended harm in another (e.g. agriculture). The goal of his new centre is to bring stakeholders from all the areas together to try to develop policies that will benefit all areas. As an aside, one thing I noticed about the list of stakeholders he shared was the lack of the public. As “end users” I think that it’s essential that the public (or specific groups from the public such as those experiencing food insecurity) are involved in these discussions.

Later in the morning we had an excellent presentation by Nishta Saxena, a dietitian. Maybe I’m a little bit biased as an RD but I felt that she did a fantastic job of presenting the struggles we face in addressing healthy eating with clients when they are constantly bombarded by misinformation in social media. How do we combat “sexy” social media influencers as professionals who must provide evidence-based factual information and are less inclined to posed half naked with overflowing mason jars of green smoothies? Several years later and dietitians still aren’t sexy ;)

We also had Saxena and chef Christine Cushing call out juicing and juice diets (while a new cold pressed juice company presented at one of the breakout sessions and provided samples during food breaks). Cushing mocked the caveman diet and then we had a snack break with “paleo” brownies. Saxena belittled meal kits and our swag bags contained a coupon for Hello Fresh. Hello elephant.

Follow-up Saxena’s fantastic presentation with a discussion with Dr. David Ludwig and his wife chef Dawn Ludwig to promote their new book “Always Delicious” which we all got a copy of in our swag bags. Full disclosure, I have been critical of Ludwig in the past. I tried to come into it with an open mind though, I really did but the elephant would not settle down. Despite their protestations that it was not a diet book, if it talks about weight loss, fat adaptation, is filled with testimonials (from readers who have lost weight), and has a prescriptive DIET with three phases, it’s a goddamn diet book. I’m not going to get into the science of his insulin hypothesis here because my point is not to critique his beliefs but if you want to read more about it I recommend this short article by Stephan Guyenet. I’m also not here to question the “success” people have had on Ludwig’s diet. If people are happier and healthier following this plan, I think that’s great. My issue is with the framing of this diet as the best way to eat for everyone and that the best way of eating is one that promotes weight loss. They talked about “NSVs” (non-scale victories) but the only examples I saw in the book and heard during the talk were a reduction in blood pressure and going down a pant size (which while technically not a weight loss “victory” is still a “victory” over an “unruly” body).

For a day that was meant to promote health through food there was a whole lot of talk about The Obesity Problem which is really not the direction that we want to take if we want to encourage people to have healthy relationships with food and their kitchens. I encourage everyone to read this piece about one woman’s “life as a public health crisis”.  If obesity is a “problem” then food is the enemy. That mindset does not lead to healthy attitudes and behaviours. You don’t need to “retrain” your fat cells, they are not disobedient puppies. Rather, we as a society need to retrain our attitudes toward our bodies and our food so that we can once again be friends with both.