Emotional Eating & Food as Fuel

This past Sunday was commencement at Case Western, and even though I wasn’t graduating, I still got to do a lot of celebrating because two of my best friends from undergrad were graduating. What I really mean by celebrating was going out to a lot of nice and yummy restaurants. My friends’ families’ were kind enough to include me at dinner on Saturday and lunch and dinner on Sunday.

If you know me, you know that I love a good meal out at a restaurant (especially if it is somewhere I’ve never been), but this weekend was a lot… I am not use to going out so much! I stuck with healthy choices (mostly protein and veggies) at my meals and shared some dessert, but the whole weekend got me thinking about how we view food as a culture.

In the caveman times, food was merely fuel to keep us going. Today, we eat to celebrate (graduations and birthdays, for example), we eat when we are sad (cue the break-up pint of ice cream), we eat/munch out of boredom (like the popcorn while watching TV), and we eat when we are stressed (you should see the university library during finals!).

As you can see, we strongly associate food with emotions and feelings…no wonder so many people struggle with emotional eating! If you think about it though, most of us are conditioned from a very young age to associate food (usually unhealthy food) with our emotions or actions. For example, say little Billy keeps crying as he gets a shot at the doctor so he gets a lollypop to cheer him up or his mom says he can have ice cream if he quietly and patiently waits while she buys the groceries. In these cases, Billy now associates (again, unhealthy) food with unhappiness/pain and with doing something good/behaving.

Why do we always use unhealthy foods as rewards? That’s because sweet and salty foods cause our brains to release dopamine, the hormone that makes you feel happy. While this sounds great (of course we all want to feel happy), dopamine is also the hormone that can create addiction – just one of the reasons why so many American’s are addicted to sugar and salt. Also, remember that although those foods may cause immediate happiness, sugar and salt are ultimately not good for you. They can lead to high blood pressure, inflammation, and even throw off all sorts of hormones that could cause anxiety or depression (the exact opposite of the initial feeling of happiness!).

So while almost everyone may struggle with emotional eating (including me!), it is important to think back to what food is really for – to fuel our bodies. I don’t think you would intentionally put fuel in our car that you knew would clog the pipes, so the next time you are reaching for the bag of chips or box of cookies, ask yourself, is this fueling my body with good, healthy nutrients that won’t “clog the pipes”?

And if you are a parent of little kiddos, try not to use food as a reward or use food to fill a need other than hunger. It is, of course, part of life to have cake and ice cream on your birthday (don’t give that up!!), but try not to use foods (especially sweet and salty ones) as bribes or treats for desired behaviors. It can help prevent some of those food-emotion associations later on.

Organic vs. Natural – What do they mean?

Walking up and down the grocery aisles, boxes and packages are covered with health claims and catchy words to suck you in, but they can get very confusing. Most people have a vague idea of what an organic apple is, but organic cookies…not as straight forward.

Here is a break down some of these catchy health words to help you understand what they all mean.

Organic

  • When it comes to produce, organic products are grown in soil that has no prohibited substances (including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for at least 3 years prior to harvest.
  • Organic meat and poultry have to meet 3 criteria – (1) they are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors, (2) they are fed 100% organic feed, and (3) they cannot have any antibiotics or hormones administered to them.
  • As for processed, multi-ingredient foods, they can only be labeled organic if every ingredient is organic, there must be no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, and no GMO ingredients are used.

Organic products are very highly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The government goes out to farms, tests soil, evaluates feed, and examines animal living conditions to ensure they meet all of these specific criteria.

 

Natural

  • Right now, the term “natural” seen on food labels means absolutely nothing.

Yes, you read that right. There are no rules that regulate what items can use this term in their labels, which means technically anything from apples and cucumbers, to ding-dongs, and ho-hos are all “natural”. Pretty scary, huh? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on some guidelines for what products can use the word natural, but right now, there is no regulation.

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Did you find any of this shocking? I know the “natural” one continues to blow my mind – especially because people tend to value natural products more than regular ones, and they usually cost more!

 

Want more info? These links might help!

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means

https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm

Put it on a Plate

Ever get home after a long day and the last thing you want to do is put together a meal? If there are no plans to eat anytime soon, I can guess that your first move is to open the fridge or the pantry and just start picking at whatever looks good. The problem? There is not limit. You have the whole bag, container, or package at your disposal.

The amount of food you eat is just as important as the type of food you are eat. We often load our plates way too high or dig our hand in the snack bag a few too many times leading to overeating and that uncomfortably full feeling.

So, my number one tip for portion control is putting everything you eat on a plate (or in a bowl). Sounds easy enough, right? But think about how many times you have eaten straight out of the package. Maybe it was the whole bag of popcorn on the couch or standing in front of the fridge, fork in hand, eating straight out of the Tupperware container (I am frequently guilty of this one).

Instead of bringing the whole bag of popcorn with you to the couch, pour a reasonable amount into a bowl. Even if your “reasonable” amount is more than the recommended serving size, I’ll bet you it is a lot less than what you would eat if you ate straight out of the bag.

The same goes for meals… When you sit down for dinner, put a scoopful of each item on your plate at the beginning. Then you can visualize all the food you will be eating. If you put each item on your plate after you have finished the previous item, you can’t tell how much you ate in total.

See, if you can visualize the total amount of food you are eating in a given sitting, you are more likely to make more realistic decisions when it comes to portion sizes. Even if you just want some nuts, fruit, and a slice of bread for a snack, putting it on a small plate allows you to pick out a serving size that you think is reasonable.

In my opinion, eating healthier portion sizes is worth the 2 extra minutes and few extra dishes.

Kodiak Cakes

Since school is out and I have plenty of time in the mornings to make a big breakfast, I thought I would share one of my favorite grocery finds: Kodiak cakes.

Kodiak Cakes is a company that makes all sorts of pancake & waffle mixes, dessert mixes, oatmeals and granolas. While I haven’t tried many of the products, the two pancakes and waffle mixes I have tried are delicious!Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 11.35.10 PM

The two I have tried are the Protein Packed Flapjack Mix and the Protein Packed Peanut Butter Flapjack Mix. Why Kodiak Cakes over the other pancake mixes?

  • The protein packed kind I buy has 14g of protein per serving!
  • The mix only has whole wheat grains (including whole grain wheat flour and whole grain oat flour).
  • I can read and pronounce every single ingredient in the mix (and there are only 7 of them).
  • There is no bleached white flour or artificial additives in the mix.
  • They only have 3g of sugar per serving.

In order to have a healthy and balanced meal, we need a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat at each meal. Because pancakes are typically all carbs, they can get a bad wrap for being too much like dessert for breakfast. That is why I love this protein packed mix. It takes care of the protein that is typically missing in pancakes.

Now, since Kodiak Cakes has our carb and protein needs covered, all we need is a little healthy fat. That’s where I turn to my beloved nut butter collection. Just drizzle some nut butter on your pancakes and you are good to go with a balanced breakfast.

Still aren’t convinced these pancakes can be healthy?

Lets take oatmeal, for example. Many times, the little instant packets of oatmeal have just as many (if not more) carbs than a serving of regular pancakes mix, with no fat or protein. We often make oatmeal out to be some much healthier than pancakes when really they have almost the exact same nutrients (almost all carbs).

I will say that oatmeal typically has more fiber than regular, white flour pancakes, but neither makes for a very balanced meal because there is no fat or protein. Now, oatmeal can be made into a balanced meal by added protein (egg whites or greek yogurt) and healthy fat (nut butter, flax seeds, chia seeds, almonds, etc.) just the same way that protein and fat can be added to pancakes.

My point is that we just have to be aware of what is in our food. Oatmeal may seem healthier than pancakes, but they are really quite similar. By adding protein and fat to either oatmeal or pancakes, you will have equally healthy and balanced meals.

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My Protein Packed Kodiak Cakes with banana slices and cashew butter

I happen to love mixing up my typical morning oatmeal with a big plate of pancakes every now and then so I always turn to my Protein Packed Kodiak Cakes for a balanced breakfast.

Want more info on Kodiak Cakes? http://www.kodiakcakes.com/

What I Learned From Losing My Fitbit

Last week, I had a very traumatic event happen…I lost my Fitbit (okay, maybe traumatic is an exaggeration but I digress). Thankfully, my mom had one that she didn’t use at home and could send to me at school. Still, this left me Fitbit-less for about a week. One day that week, I had the strangest thought while walking to class. I felt like walking wasn’t worth anything because I had nothing to show for it (ie. No big green star at the end of the day when I hit my step goal). I quickly had to shake myself out of that crazy thought. It blew my mind that losing this little piece of technology and not being able to see how many steps I had taken made my walking feel useless.

I did, though, get a good lesson out of this crazy thought of mine: My life is constantly a numbers game: how many steps I take, how many ounces of water I drink, how many calories I eat, how many minutes I exercise for, and the list continues. I can have a few OCD tendencies at times; I like to keep track and make sure everything is neat and organized and I guess counting all these things can bring a little bit of organization to my life. Even if you aren’t someone like me who is obsessed with counting steps, calories, minutes, and ounces, it seems like that is what we are recommended to do. The US Food and Drug Administration recommends we consume about 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2000 calories, 5.5 ounces of protein, and 64 ounces of water each day.

My point is that we are a numbers and counting driven society even though that is not the recommended way to lose weight or create a “healthy” diet. Counting and recording everything has been proven to be an ineffective way to have long-term weight loss – it is just not a sustainable behavior. Instead, listening to your body and making logical decisions about what and when to eat and exercise is the best way to go. This crazy thought during my Fitbit-less walk showed me that I need to do a better job of just listening to my body and not worrying about the numbers- especially when it comes to physical activity.

Is your stomach growling? Go get something healthy to eat. Are you full? Stop eating- you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. Craving chocolate? Break a few squares off of the big bar, enjoy them, and leave the rest for later. The same goes for exercise. Sitting at a desk all day? Get up and go for a walk. Sore muscles and exhausted? Take a rest day. Feeling unmotivated? Remember that exercise will make you feel better so go get it done!

Your body knows exactly what it needs, you just have to learn how to listen and understand the cues it gives you. I know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes time and work to be “on the same page” as your body. Setting number driven goals (like 10,000 steps per day) might be beneficial to working towards a target weight or activity level, but in the end, it is all about how you feel. Whether you meet those goals or not, if you aren’t feeling good all the calories and steps you counted don’t mean anything. You should always try to feel healthy, not hungry, tired, or deprived.

Dietetic Internship Search Update
The beginning of senior year means the hunt and application process for a Dietetic Internship (DI) has begun. A DI is a 1200-hour supervised practice program a student must go through to in order to sit for a board exam to become a Registered Dietitian (read more about the process here). I am looking at DI’s that have a master’s degree program combined, so that narrows down my options but there are still lots to choose from.

Step one in applying to any of these programs is taking the GRE (Graduate Records Exam), which I just took in August. I got my scores this week and thankfully I did well enough that I don’t need to take it again!

The next steps are figuring out exactly where I am going to apply and starting my personal statement. Stay tuned for more DI updates 🙂

Counting Calories

caloriesOur obsession with calories and calorie counting today can be blamed on Wilbur Atwater, the scientist that discovered what calories were. In the early 1900’s he found that all foods contained a certain amount of energy (now known as calories) and that same energy is used up when we partake in physical activity. While Atwater had a great scientific finding that has allowed us to understand how weight gain and loss works, the subsequent result of obsessive calorie counting isn’t always the best nor healthiest habit.

Should I be counting calories?

My short answer: no.
My long answer: maybe sometimes. Here’s why:
Calorie counting is tedious, time consuming, and unrealistic over the long term and therefore is not sustainable. It also takes the enjoyment of eating. If every plate becomes a math equation and entry into a food long, you are neither going to have a pleasant time eating nor a healthy relationship with food. On the other hand, I think one of the most important ways for people to sustain a healthy diet is to understand what is in the food they are eating. It can be a great tool to be able to look at a plate and eyeball about how many ounces of chicken you are having or about how many calories are in the side of stir-fried vegetables. It is also a good tool to be able to know about how big your portion sizes should be or how many snacks you should have to keep your daily calorie intake around 2,000. So, one of the best ways you can gain that knowledge and ability to guess-timate you calorie intake is to count calories- but just for a week or two.

If you are new to the calorie counting game, I would recommend keeping track of everything you eat each day (for a about a week) and adding up the calories at the end of the day (or you can use a fancy calorie tracker on your phone – My favorite app is MyFitnessPal). This will give you an idea of about how many calories you are eating on any particular day. If you are around 2,000 calories, great! Now you may want to focus on the types of foods you are eating (but I’ll leave that topic for another post). If you aren’t around 2,000 calories, you should revisit your log from the past week. Figure out if there are certain foods that are putting you over your calorie allowance, or maybe your portion sizes are unrealistic. This is where calorie counting is helpful; it allows you to figure out where “the bumps in the road” are. Once you have identified those “bumps”, try to make some changes, keep a food long for another week and see if you get closer to your calorie goal. Once you get a good feel of what “normal” portion sizes are and about how much you should eat per day, then I don’t recommend keeping track. Counting calories for too long can make you become obsessive over every little thing you put in your mouth. The goal is for you to be able to understand what fits into your daily “calorie budget” naturally in your daily life, not to be able to precisely know statistics about your food.

Not to burst your bubble, but…

The calories listed on food packages might not actually be true. Many recent studies (like this one) show that the actual number of calories in a food item is about 8% higher than what is stated on the package. Better yet, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) allows this as long as the actual values are not more than 20% greater than what is listed on the label. That means that a product label could list 250 calories but it could actually have 299 calories, and the FDA would say the label was acceptable! Same goes for all the other nutrients like fat, carbohydrates, and protein. This is all the more reason why counting calories is not the best idea!

 

Vacation Eating and The Hunger Scale

Vacation usually means lots and lots of delicious treats! I love trying new foods so going to new restaurants and countries with new types of food is so much fun for me. Vacation also usually means a week or two of indulging and then its back to a relatively well balanced diet. My dilemma… I have quickly realized that this “vacation” is not just a week or two. I am abroad for over four months so having loads of sugary treats everyday is not the wisest decision. The past week has made me discover that just because I am in a foreign country does not means I can eat whatever I want, all of the time.

Over the weekend, some friends and I took a quick trip to Brussels, Belgium. I don’t know what you think about when I say Belgium, but the first things that came to my mind were chocolate, waffles, and French fries. With only 48 hours, we all took advantage of these amazing treats… so much so that we all felt pretty sick for the next few days. While a few days of salad, vegetable overload, and some trips to the gym got me feeling right back to normal, I have realized that this pattern of overeating and then “cleansing” does not make me feel my best.

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Belgian Waffles!

The biggest thing that I have forgotten about in all of this is the hunger scale. This guide here is a good way to know when and how much you (and I) should eat. If “1” is starving and “10” is miserably full, you should always be between 3 and 6/7. I know that recently I have been hitting 9/10 (and possible an 11 in Belgium!) way too often and it doesn’t feel good.

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It is probably going to be difficult to say no to the homemade cakes my host mom makes, along with the flakey chocolate-filled pastries on every street corner, but if I want to survive these four months without endless stomach aches, I have to remind myself that I am going to be here for quite some time, and I don’t have to stuff my face with everything that is in front of me. (But, of course, a treat or a bite here and there will never hurt!) I also have to remind myself how much better I will feel if I don’t go to bed feeling like a roly-poly every night.