Most of us are familiar with the book, Eat This, Not That, and the concept behind it. Magazines are filled with these types of features, showing us which foods are superior to their calorie-soaked counterparts. We regularly see these sorts of segments on TV, too.
But while this information may help us make healthier choices, there’s also a slew of insidious messages. When looking through the latest Fitness, where I found some interesting advice, I came across the following sidebar (copied directly from the magazine; unfortunately, the sidebar wasn’t available online). And it made me nervous:
Having trouble choosing healthier holiday treats? Look how much gym time you can save!
1 slice pecan pie
1 slice pumpkin pie
25 minutes on the stationary bike (187 calories)
9 minutes of jogging
11 minutes on the stairmill
4 Swedish meatballs
4 stuff baby
25 minutes of walking
6 coconut shrimp 6 shrimp with
89 minutes of weight lifting
Why? Because this type of advice fosters a shaky, at best — and destructive, at worst — way of thinking about food and fitness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about giving people the tools they need to become sharp and savvy consumers and make informed decisions. For instance, the amount of calories in some restaurant foods is shocking, and as consumers, it’s important for us to know. But… this goes too far.
This table, and others like it, transmit the following risky messages. They imply:
1. That we have to work off every calorie we consume, or it’ll go straight to our thighs and make us horribly huge. Which is a myth. According to eating disorder specialist Sari Shepphird, Ph.D, who I interviewed last May:
There has been this new trend based on the book, Eat This, Not That: Dieticians are using the mass media as a tool to talk about which foods have less or more calories. Sometimes a dietician might say you should skip the thick crust pizza and have the thin crust instead, because you’ll have to run for two hours in order to burn it off. This isn’t true; it is a fallacy to say that one has to exercise for every calorie one consumes. Our bodies are naturally burning calories to take a breath, to wake up, to heal from a cold, to do regular activities in daily life that sustain us.
It is a myth to think that we need to burn off every calorie that we consume through exercise. If we want to maintain our weight, we actually only need to burn off whatever calories are in excess of our metabolic rate. A person can do an equation to calculate how many calories they should be eating per day in order to maintain a normal weight. To calculate one’s basal metabolic rate (BMR), one can use the following formula, but keep in mind that the formula is not exact as BMR can vary based on bone structure and amount of physical activity that one engages in. Or, visit the website links here or here.
Women: BMR = 655 + ( 4.35 x weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 x height in inches ) – ( 4.7 x age in years )
Men: BMR = 66 + ( 6.23 x weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 x height in inches ) – ( 6.8 x age in year )
2. That the goal of exercise is to become slim and stay slim. If this chart was truly promoting health, then a few days of choosing a pecan pie over pumpkin and coconut shrimp over shrimp with cocktail sauce wouldn’t be seen as detrimental. A sugar rush? Maybe. An unhealthy, horrible habit? No way. Eating these foods once in a while won’t damage our organs or undo a healthy lifestyle. This is just another example, in a slew of examples, of magazines promoting the thin ideal – not the idea of working out because it’s healthy, but working out because it gets you closer to achieving today’s skinny standards.
3. That we should fixate on calories. This chart tells us that when we look at food, it’s time to kick-start our internal calorie counter, which can be confusing and inconvenient at best, and very unhealthy, at worst: “Do I have the apple pie or the pumpkin? Which one has more carbs and calories? Is the salad OK to eat?”
Another conundrum: What if the party you’re attending doesn’t offer pumpkin pie? What if there are absolutely no healthy options? Sure, there are always healthier foods but who knows if it’s the pasta or potatoes, the cookies or the cake. Before you know it, nothing looks appealing. By the time, you’re done tallying up the numbers, you may just realize that the easiest and less time-consuming choice is nothing at all (“Forget it; this is too confusing; I just won’t eat anything”). Which can be risky all on its own.
Watching what you eat isn’t inherently unhealthy. It’s important to be mindful of the foods you’re eating and make sure you’re taking in vital nutrients. But fixating on calories can lead to obsession, which can lead to disordered eating.
4. That we’re doing something bad. You can’t browse through a magazine without words like “guilt,” “guilt-ridden” or guilt-free” staring back at you. It seems like indulging in dessert should strike fear in your heart and guilt in your soul. If you choose to nosh on the “naughty” dessert, this table implies that you should feel guilty. But don’t worry; you can absolve yourself from almost any culpability by working off those extra calories accordingly…
In addition to making us feel guilty, terms like “naughty” and “nice” instantly make the decision for us: If you eat the naughty food, you’re bad. Eat the nice food? And you’re an angel. Sure, as adults we know better than to classify our eating habits using black-and-white thinking — or do we? How often have you said, “Oh, I’ve been so bad today with eating that piece of cake, but I’ll be good tomorrow, and just eat salad.” This all-or-nothing thinking encourages an unhealthy way of looking at food. And, interestingly, all-or-nothing thinking can make you less likely to maintain weight loss, anyway. And here’s the thing, as Carrie Arnold of the excellent blog ED Bites writes in a post on guilt:
Eating is not a crime. It’s not a moral issue. It’s normal. It’s enjoyable. It just is.
To get an expert’s opinion, I emailed with eating disorder specialist Karen Samuels, Ph.D, who’s also in charge of COPE (Community Outreach for Prevention of Eating Disorders) here in Florida. She said:
I absolutely concur that it [the chart] promotes weight and shape preoccupation one places an exercise/caloric value on every food eaten. This is exactly what develops in what is known as “exercise bulimia” when an individual uses excess exercise to eradicate the energy value of foods consumed.
While at the holidays, there is often an abundance of foods that are identified with celebrating the day(s), it is absolutely crucial not to devalue foods into “naughty vs. nice” categories. There are no forbidden foods. Deprivation of these so called “bad foods” tends to contribute to cravings for the very items we “forbid” ourselves.
Cravings lead to a larger than normal appetite, food obsessions and consuming negative self talk. These are the three triggers that often lead to problems with disordered eating, negative self and body image and consuming negative thoughts.
Her prescription for a healthy holiday? Shift the focus. She said:
The holidays can be a time of enjoying relationships and connections. For many people challenged with weight obsession, depressed mood states and food struggles, the holidays can become a troubling time of isolation and fear. Holiday gatherings offer a myriad of foods and these social settings may become difficult for the person battling an eating disorder.
If we can shift the emphasis away from the food and drink, offer an opportunity to connect with important loved ones, then we can forget about the invitation to “eat, drink and be merry”. Focus on one true thing that brings a smile to yourself and/or someone you love. Let the food/drink be the backdrop for the time with those we cherish.
What do you think? Does this advice encourage a negative approach to food or help us make better choices? Are magazines merely presenting the facts (i.e., one dessert clearly has fewer calories than that other) or sending potentially dangerous messages — or perhaps a bit of both?
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Dr. John Grohol (November 9, 2009)
Last reviewed: 9 Nov 2009