This morning, I got an email from one of my favorite nutrition writers, John Berardi of Precision Nutrition, which sounded an awful lot like what I’ve been saying to clients for the last few weeks when they come to me TOTALLY FREAKING OUT ABOUT HOLIDAY COOKIES. These are stressed people. Seriously unhappy people. Not exactly holiday cheerful. Because COOKIES. I had people TOTALLY FREAKING OUT ABOUT HOLIDAY COOKIES starting in early November, and I will continue to hear about COOKIES well into January. I’ve shared Dr. Berardi’s words below, but first, my take on this state of affairs.

As evidenced by my egregious use of capital letters, these are high volume, high intensity, high anxiety, high angst concerns. And I’m not trying to be mean about it: people are seriously suffering, and it’s very real. The problem is that we’re talking about cookies. In my mental landscape, a cookie is a palm-sized (or smaller, like those little round ones with the nuts inside and the powdered sugar – I love those) baked good that takes one to three minutes to eat depending on the size. However, for my friends of the freaking out, COOKIES are stomping through their mental landscapes crushing hopes and dreams like Godzilla having a very bad hair day.

The fear is real. It’s real, but it’s also a construction and a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a person starts thinking in November about how hard it’s going to be not to eat a certain food item in two months, and keeps thinking about how “bad” that food item is, and how she can’t control herself around that food item, it gives the damn thing an enormous amount of power. (It also ruins her November.) COOKIES are going to destroy her, she’s sure of it, and ensuring it. And of course, when late December rolls around, she’s going to eat them. How could you not eat something you’ve been debating about for two months? Will she enjoy the cookie? Survey says no. Because the minute it reaches her mouth, she’ll already be berating herself for how weak and bad and lazy and gross she is to have been subjugated by a COOKIE, rather than savoring its tasty flavor, reflecting on the family heritage the recipe represents or something else, you know, nice.

Because holiday cookies are nice. That’s about it. Some are tastier than others, some have memories associated with them, and some are kinda lame and taste like their cardboard box. But they really, really are a pretty minor, albeit pleasant, occurrence if you treat them as such.

Try this mindset on for size: Imagine yourself not thinking about holiday cookies until you’re actually faced with a plate of holiday cookies, perhaps at a party, perhaps on the table in the break room at work. Like, how you don’t think much about getting an oil change until it’s time to get an oil change. Now, assess the plate of cookies. Do you like this kind? Were they prepared by someone special? Are they appealing? Now, assess your level of hunger and your emotional state. Are you fairly full because you just ate a satisfying meal? Are you starting to feel that little nudge in the tummy that suggests it might be snack time soon? Are you bummed out and overwhelmed, or perhaps feeling a little festive? If you’re not too full, and not in an unpleasant emotional state where you’re more likely to be self-medicating than enjoying a treat, and there are cookies on the plate that are truly appealing to you, select the cookie that looks the best and eat it.  Feel free to take a bow.

Then walk away. Because you are not the cookie you just ate. You’re a mature adult human who, on occasion, when the moment is right, chooses to eat foods from the “treat” category because they are fun and nourishing in their own way. You’re not going to get fat. You’re going to get awesome. Because when COOKIES become just cookies, you get the power back, and you get to spend a lot more of your life thinking about other things that are a lot more interesting. Like, what to get your mother-in-law for Christmas. Or world peace. Or really anything.

(And, as a side note, if you are maybe still a little worried about the cookies: you’re much more likely to overeat the things if you treat them as a diet smashing super power, rather than a moderately enjoyable sometimes treat, because that’s how the restrict, binge, rinse, repeat cycle works. I promise, promise, promise you that you will eat fewer cookies if you allow yourself to enjoy them now and again than if you try to avoid all baked goods for two months and then go to your Nana’s house on December 25th.)

Now for the other guy’s take on things:

“My three little ones have been helping my wife and I with the usual chores: decorating the tree, creating cards with construction paper, preparing canned food donations for the local food pantry, and…making delicious cookies. But before you ask for my killer “healthy” cookie recipe, I have a confession: We’re not making not some low-fat, gluten-free, protein-packed, artificially sweetened, possibly-hiding-beets, “healthy” version of a cookie. Nope, we’re making the REAL THING. The kind of cookie that contains butter, sugar, and flour. The kind of cookie where you want a tall glass of milk to help wash it down. The kind of cookie most “nutrition experts” will tell you to avoid completely this year… Just dip some kale leaves into lemon juice with a splash of stevia and it’s exactly the same thing.

Anyway, when people learn that my family and I sometimes make treats like cookies…or go out for ice cream…or don’t eat 100% protein and vegetables all the time…they get a little confused. “But isn’t Precision Nutrition all about eating good foods and avoiding bad foods?” The answer, I’m proud to say, is no. Precision Nutrition is NOT all about eating “good” foods and avoiding “bad” foods. (I don’t even like those labels.) In a minute, I’ll share what Precision Nutrition is really about. But first I’m going to encourage you to enjoy some sort of cookie, cake, or cocktail this holiday season, too. In addition to songs, and friendship, and holiday cheer…

You see, every time you choose to eat one thing over another, you’re voting for what’s really important to you right now. Of course, you may not realize you’re doing that. But every decision IS a calculation. Of what really matters to you, in that moment. So, with the holidays here for most of us, what DOES matter to you right now?Is it… Feeling good? Connecting with loved ones? Truly nourishing your body? Feeding your soul? Remembering your heritage or family traditions? No judgement here. YOU get to decide your priorities. And  sometimes other things SHOULD win out over “nutrition”.

So I’m not here to tell you what to do, think, or feel. Or to make you feel guilty, ashamed, anxious, or deprived. Instead, I’m here to help you think through the question. To help you choose more consciously, with awareness and intention… Because shortbread and latkes taste great when made with love and shared with friends and family. They just do. And, while some people in fitness have a hard time with this notion, I think that feeling good is part of enjoying life and being healthy…

Here’s my first prescription: Enjoy a real cookie or two this holiday season! Or some other thing you enjoy but think is “off limits”. Just do it consciously, mindfully, and – as we teach in our coaching programs – slowly. Instead of scarfing it down and waiting for the guilt, taste what you enjoy. With intention. Then move on…

But even if you’re not ready to embrace this mindset yet because restricting is your only way to feel in control… Because you can’t believe that enjoying certain foods guilt-free is possible… Because you’re stuck in the middle of a nasty cycle of restrict, collapse, guilt, repeat… My family and I will still share some laughs, shed some tears, and nosh a few cookies this holiday season. We might even raise a glass of egg nog in your honor. Because, around here, we know that connection, love, and enjoyment CAN exist while working toward better health together. And we’re hoping that somewhere along they way you’ll discover the same thing.”


Does this Baby Make Me Look Fat?

Don’t worry – the pregnancy related posts will run their natural course some time soon because I’m due in mid-March, but until then, it’s pretty hard not to reflect on something that’s so powerfully shaping my experience of myself, as well as the way other people experience me. According to this excellent article (Body Image | Brown University Health Education“Body image is a widespread preoccupation. In one study of college students, 74.4% of the normal-weight women stated that they thought about their weight or appearance “all the time” or “frequently.” What gets really wacky with pregnancy is that suddenly many of the people I interact with on a daily basis are now also thinking about my weight and appearance all the time or frequently, and they appear to feel quite comfortable commenting on these factors.

I spend a fair amount of time reassuring clients that no one else is paying as close attention to their body and the subtle shifts in appearance that folks tend to fixate on within themselves. And this is true. Really, it is. You can even do an experiment. Look at someone you know every day for a week. I can guarantee you that their weight will fluctuate within at least a 3-5 lb range based on the time of day, the sodium content of their food choices the previous day and etc, but to you, they will appear stable. Especially for the I-weigh-myself-one-million-times-each-day crowd, the same is probably not true for your own body image. In other words, if you see numbers fluctuating on a scale, you will believe that you see your appearance shifting drastically because the beliefs you have about those numbers will skew your perspective. It is possible to look at the same thigh two days in a row and see it as reasonably proportionate one day, and massive and disturbing the next without the poor leg actually changing at all.

What’s really zany about pregnancy is that suddenly all bets are off. Everyone, from receptionists, to friends, family, mail carriers and dudes holding doors open actually is actively visually assessing me, which if it wasn’t obvious from the gazes is obvious because people say stuff. Feel free to gasp. It is the worst nightmare of the dieter, the disordered eater, the female high school student, and, some days, me. Everything I’ve been taught, everything I preach to my clients about body image and reality-checking has been turned on its head for the last 27 weeks (12 weeks and 6 days to go, in case you’re keeping track). I can now assume that when I leave my house, someone’s going to comment on my size. Many days, it’s many someones. In our culture, bearing a babybump is basically the same as wearing a flashing neon sign on your head that says “Hey, check me out! And then compare me to pregnant celebrities! To my face!”

The fascinating part of this turn of events is that the assessments of how I look, and the comments that are made, frequently pretty obviously say more about the person making the comment then they do about my actual appearance. I know this because sometimes I get a “Wow, you’re such a petite person that it makes your stomach look really huge”, and then five minutes later I get a “Wow, you’ve really only just started showing, your bump is so tiny” and then an hour after that I get a “Wow, your boobs are so huge!” (no, I am not making these things up). In other words, just like personal body image fluctuates with mood and context, so do the assessments other people are making about my body across the course of one day in which the only thing actually changing is how bad the baby-induced heartburn is. The ludicrous diversity within these comments has actually helped me get some perspective because clearly people are not seeing me. They’re seeing me, distorted through their own ideas about femininity, motherhood, my role in their lives and probably their relationships with other women.

It’s terrifying, don’t get me wrong, and I am very much looking forward to getting out of this spotlight, but I’ll be taking some lessons with me about how profoundly relative and subjective thoughts and feelings about appearance can be.

Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

I’ve been thinking a lot about medication lately. (Also working overtime to buffer my family financially for my upcoming maternity leave, hence the sparse postings.) (Further parenthetically, I am not, to be clear, a prescriber of such, nor do I believe that psychotropic medications work for all people in all mental health situations.)

I’ve noticed that the people I see in treatment tend to fall into several camps. The first group believe that medication is the most important part of mental health treatment, and if they don’t feel “normal” yet, then they just haven’t found the right pill at the right dose. These folks tend to get frustrated the minute I mention the word “process” in relationship to their wellness, or suggest that the choices they’re making or the beliefs they have might be contributing to feelings of being less than well. Obviously, I’m biased towards thinking that my professional output leads to effective outcomes, but these folks and I don’t tend to do very well together.

The second group of people I see are highly medication resistant, either because being diagnosed and prescribed a medication feels stigmatizing, or out of fear that the medication will in some way fundamentally and/or irreparably alter their personality or state of being. While resistance to therapy is not a problem here, I have found that people in this camp hit impasses as well because their symptoms interfere with their ability to act on insight and new learning sufficiently to make serious headway.

Historically, I have not found myself to be particularly effective in convincing folks in either of these groups to budge towards the middle path, but, in an interesting twist of fate, my pregnancy has provided me with some rather powerful talking points.

The story goes like this: up until my late husband’s suicide, no one in my circle of wellness helper types had ever recommended medication to me, which is a mystery I’ll leave for another time, but that probably has its roots in my particular cultural location. Regardless, things got sufficiently squirrelly in the aftermath of his death that I ended up with a referral to a psychiatrist. We tried me on a few different medications over the course of a year or so, all of which I “felt” in various ways in terms of both their impact on my mood and various physical symptoms, until both the psychiatrist and I agreed that we’d landed on an antidepressant and a take-as-needed for supremely anxious moments combination that was the most helpful with the fewest annoying side effects.

And then I got pregnant, and had to drop it all so the baby didn’t get a cleft palette and a heart defect, which was a sacrifice I was (hopefully obviously) willing to make.

But now, I have my symptoms back, and it’s giving me a very useful perspective on what medication does, what it does not do, and why I probably would have been a lot easier to live with, both as myself and in relationship to others, if I had gone on medication about a decade and a half sooner.

When I went on the medication, I had a basic hunch as to what was different, but mostly I just knew that I felt better, and that better was good. Now that I’m off, I have been able to pinpoint exactly what has come back: there are a set of experiences, the most salient being this state I get into for about 24-72 hours at a time in which I’m tense, irritable, sad, afraid and just super negative, that immediately reemerged off the medication. It didn’t change who I am, or how I think, or my beliefs. It just eliminated that particular mood experience from my life.

What’s further interesting is that I can now look back on my life and identify when it was that this particular state started coming over me, either sporadically, or for months at a time, and say AH HA! That was a brain state, the kind that medication can shift. That wasn’t “me”, which is what I used to think. On medication, no cloud of icky. Off medication, clouds of icky are in the forecast every few weeks.

In defense of my non-pill-prescribing-profession, I’ve been using mindfulness, a variety of coping skills including talking with my partner about how this is a transient state, cleaning random things, and baking a lot of whole grain muffins (the most recent batch were banana chocolate chip), to get through since I don’t have the medication tool at my disposal these days, but I never thought I’d say that I was looking forward to getting back on medication (in, like, two years when daughter has been born and is finished breast-feeding).

And I am.