Navigating the Holidays: Q&A with Marsha Hudnall
I’m so thrilled to feature an interview with Marsha Hudnall, MS, RD, CD, director and owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s retreat for healthy living without dieting. She contributes to the blogs A Weight Lifted and We Are the Real Deal, both must-reads! I absolutely love her work and philosophy.
I contacted Marsha to get her take on all the holiday eating hoopla. Below, we talked turkey (sorry, couldn’t help it ) about healthy eating advice, detox diets and more!
1. I write a lot about the detrimental messages magazines convey to women about body image, food and fitness. With the holidays almost here, women’s magazines pack their issues with how-tos on navigating buffets, celebratory spreads and office parties. Even websites like WebMD.com feature advice on “handling holiday diet temptations.” This article, for instance, provides good advice and suggests taking it easy and enjoying yourself. But there’s still the ever-present sprinkle of “you better watch out and curb that out-of-control eating” type of advice.
“Holiday parties are much more than food and drinks. They are a time to delight in the traditions of the season, and enjoy the company of family and friends. If you keep the focus on the spirit of the season — and heed the advice of our diet experts — you’ll most likely get through the holidays without gaining a pound [emphasis mine].
And if you do splurge, don’t beat yourself up, the experts say. Just get right back to normal eating and exercising, and try to do a better job at the next party.”
Do you think this advice has gotten out of hand or is truly helpful? What kinds of messages do these tips send?
This is a tough question because many people need a little help to navigate the holidays without stressing over food and weight. That’s because they don’t know how to eat well anymore without guidelines. If we are normal healthy eaters, navigating the riches of the holidays is intuitive. But for the rest of us, it’s not. To help those of us in this latter group, advice that can help us move towards normal healthy eating could be useful.
To do that, how the advice is presented is important. If it smacks of restriction or reinforces a focus on weight, it’s likely to exacerbate struggles. In my opinion, the “you better watch out and curb that out-of-control eating” advice is enormously off-track because it sets external limits on our eating, instead of encouraging us to listen to our bodies to determine when we’ve had enough. External limits set most of us up for feelings of deprivation, thinking we can’t have something or can’t have as much as we want. When we almost inevitably have it, we often eat more than we normally would out of guilt or a belief that “I better eat it all now because tomorrow, I’ll go back to being “good.””
2. I recently wrote a post about silly suggestions from women’s magazines. What’s the silliest or worst tip you’ve seen for eating or exercising during the holidays?
I’m so turned off and tired of silly, misguided suggestions that I rarely pay attention to them anymore. To say which is the silliest is almost impossible. There are just too many to choose from. One I recently read might vie for the dubious honor, however: Wear snug clothes to a party because trying to hold in your stomach will help keep you from overeating. What wasn’t said: It will also have you obsessing all evening about whether your stomach protrudes. Sounds like a recipe for a highly unpleasant evening to me.
3. What are some strategies for navigating all the holiday tips and tricks?
At Green Mountain, we encourage people to eat what they want and tune into their bodies to tell them when they’ve had enough. If they’re still working to become proficient at intuitive eating, we give them guidelines that focus on eating regular well-balanced meals and snacks when they’re hungry, which usually adds up to three meals and a snack or two a day. The oft-repeated but definitely ill-advised strategy of banking calories illustrates why regular eating is so important. When we get too hungry, the normal physiological reaction is to overeat. It’s like a rubber band that’s been stretched too far. It shoots across the room when you let go.
We also encourage them to look at what they really want. Is it to feel stuffed and uncomfortable, weighed down, even nauseous? Or is it to feel great, eating in a way to support that, knowing that eating just enough to satisfy will provide the pleasure of tasty foods without the negative consequences?
4. You’ve written about the confusion surrounding nutritional advice. Most of this advice comes from reputable experts, including nutritionists and dieticians, yet it may not always be healthy. Sometimes, it can feel like some experts are the ones espousing the restrictive advice. How do we know when the advice we’re reading is unhealthy? Any tips for becoming smarter consumers?
To answer this, Margarita, it helps to look at why restrictive advice is so rampant even among nutrition experts. I think it goes back to the fact that dieting advice has become the definition for healthy eating for many if not most people. While many nutritionists and dietitians are starting to wake up to the idea of normal eating (also called intuitive and mindful), there are many who still don’t get it. So we continue to see dieting advice that masquerades as healthy eating advice.
To know if advice is healthy or not, think about who it gives the power to. Does it set the individual up for being a potential victim, rather than someone who can think for herself? Who’s in charge? When we’re in charge, making decisions that we think are right for us in the moment, it generally means we’re paying attention to how we feel and thinking our choices through.
Also consider whether the advice promotes feelings of guilt or deprivation. Typical advice identifies certain foods as something we shouldn’t eat much of because it’s too rich. Yet how could anyone know it’s too rich for a person without knowing what that person eats over time? All it does is make us question whether we’re doing something bad to our bodies when we eat it. Given all the confusion about healthy eating, that can be pretty anxiety-producing and hence damaging. Usually a rich food is not going to create problems if we eat in moderation, which is what we will intuitively do when we feed ourselves well, pay attention to our internal cues for eating, and live a generally healthy lifestyle.
5. What are your thoughts on post-holiday detox diets and fasts? There seems to be a lot of misinformation surrounding their benefits. Which is made more complicated by celebrities, such as detox devotee Gwyneth Paltrow.
I wouldn’t recommend anyone follow detoxification advice found on a website or the like. Some of it can be dangerous, even life-threatening. And as friend and colleague Laura Lagano, RD, an integrative nutritionist in the New York area, said after looking at Gwyneth Paltrow’s suggested detox menu, “I think only models, celebs and people with anorexia can eat this way.” That sort of sums it up, don’t you think?
You can look at healthy eating – a balanced plan featuring adequate protein, fat and carbohydrate, plenty of greens and other vegetables (ideally organic or with as few pesticides as possible) and minimal packaged processed food with lots of preservatives and the like — as a form of detox diet. It can help cleanse and restore the body, which someone may or may not need after the holidays, and it’s not going to cause any harm. It’s just the opposite. Healthy eating can boost energy and help a person feel great. I consider it the basis for feeling great, although adding the other components of a healthy lifestyle such as physical activity, adequate sleep and stress management is also key. An integrative nutritionist might have a person additionally eliminate common food allergens and other substances that the body has to work a bit harder to digest and metabolize, such as caffeine and alcohol, especially if a person physically reacts negatively to what she eats. Fasting, on the other hand, isn’t a good idea as a detox program because it can cause a quick breakdown of fat, where many toxins are stored, and end up increasing the toxin load dramatically.
That said, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to undertake a detoxification program without the guidance of a qualified professional such as a registered dietitian. It’s important to individualize these kinds of programs and monitor an individual’s reaction
6. Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
I’m encouraged that more people are recognizing how misguided the typical diet advice is but a lot of people are still confused. The food fest that the holidays have become doesn’t make it easier. We put together a tongue-in-cheek article on how to guarantee holiday weight gain that might help some people sort through some of the confusion. We’ve also written other pieces that outline different strategies to help, from how to unsubscribe from the See Food Diet to how to eat the best and leave the rest during the holidays.
All that said, I’d just like to remind folks that the holidays are a special time for us to celebrate family and friends. Now is a good time to give up the focus on weight, if we haven’t already. Not only do weight worries detract from the good times, they have the potential to make things a lot worse. Rarely do they solve any problem.
Thanks so much, Marsha, for taking the time to give us such excellent advice!
How do you view the advice for the holiday season? Do you find it helpful? Are you worried about facing the holiday spread?
Tartakovsky, M. (2009). Navigating the Holidays: Q&A with Marsha Hudnall. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 29, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2009/11/navigating-the-holidays-qa-with-marsha-hudnall/