The Problem Isn’t Too Much Fruit: Enough with the Tired, Old Advice

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Dishing out nutrition misinformation on Morning Joe | Fruit, Supersizing and Body WeightAnyone who watches MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” knows that Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough’s co-host, has made it her personal mission to fight obesity in this country. She’s frequently ridiculed by Joe and others on the show about her position on food, physical activity and weight. But if you go by the recent psa-like spot in which she and Joe discuss portion sizes, comparing a proper serving size of fruit to a tennis ball, it looks like Joe is starting to follow her lead.

The problem is, overeating fruit isn’t the problem.

Further, the focus of Mika and Joe’s conversation exemplifies the tired, old advice that leads people to failure in their efforts to eat better for healthy weights. In essence, just advising people to watch portion sizes independent of a larger context can trip them up in their efforts to eat healthy.

It goes like this:

When I ask participants at our women’s healthy weight management retreat what comes to mind when I say the words “healthy eating,” many of the responses are along the lines of “boring,” “restrictive,” and “can’t have what I want.” Why is that? Because most of them, in their myriad attempts to lose weight, now define healthy eating according to diet rules.

One of those rules is about how much we’re “supposed” to eat. It leaves no room for normal eating, which includes undereating at times and overeating at others.  Ultimately, that translates to moving away from listening to our bodies to tell us when, what and how much to eat, which is part of the natural process of eating that evolved to support survival.  This disconnection can perhaps be best seen in the challenge that supersizing presents to many people today.  Faced with an abundance of food, many of us are no longer able to stop eating when we’ve truly had enough.  Instead, we finish what’s on our plate without regard to how we feel.

This disconnection from our bodies is then exacerbated by a focus on the idea that we can’t have as much as we want. So when we choose fruit instead of the bag of extruded cheese-flavored crunchies, we do it with the idea that we can have only one piece if we really want to eat healthy. If we eat more, either because we’re hungry or just that really tasted good, we’ve failed. And that sets up the “I can’t do this” response that’s so common among people who have tried and tried again, only to end up mired in their old habits.

All this is not to say that information about what is a portion size can’t be helpful.  But only if it’s presented as a place to start.  When we choose smaller portion sizes, it builds in an automatic stopping point where we can assess if we want more.  It gives us time to stop and think beyond mindless eating. But we’re only able to effectively do that if we believe we can have as much as we want.  We’re much better at determining how much we truly want because the lure of the forbidden is gone.  Viewed in this context, New York’s move to limit portion sizes of sodas could be helpful.

So, Mika, if you really want to lead in this area, consider taking a different tack, one that helps weight-struggling people blend their wants with their needs, to eat in a way that truly does support them in reaching their goals. The tack goes by a few names these days — mindful eating, intuitive eating, attuned eating — and research shows it’s associated with lower weights. Otherwise, your personal mission is doomed to frustration.

Thoughts, anyone?

10 Responses (Add Yours)

  • Julia says:

    Marsha, I love your fierce dedication to unraveling the Celtic knot that is the mainstream media message of ‘healthy living.’ That message leaves such a gap between mind and body, as if the answer is to shut off our wants, focus only on the bare minimum needs of our bodies. Whenever we can get a powerful voice on the side of re-connection as solution, it empowers those of us struggling to hold on to our beliefs that food mismanagement is a symptom of more than just portion control. Thank you, thank you!

  • Kathleen says:

    Hi Marsha,
    Thanks for your post. It is wonderful that you are addressing a kinder gentler way to finding a healthy lifestyle. I still am not hearing about cutting sugar, though. I find that when I reduce my sugar intake to under 20 grams I no longer have the cravings that lead to all that “want.” I used to think it was carbs, but that isn’t it. I am able to eat everything I previously thought I couldn’t eat like pizza, and bread with dinner when we go out. The part of the puzzle for me was sugar. I guess I am lucky I don’t really like the sweet fruits. Sugar is sugar no matter what the package and for me watching the sugar opens up the possibility of intuitive eating because I can really listen to what my BODY wants not what my sugar soaked brain wants.

    • Marsha says:

      Hi, Kathleen,
      This is such a good point. And it ties into the importance of listening to our bodies for guidance about what we eat. That is really what mindful eating/intuitive eating/attuned eating is all about. If it tells us something doesn’t feel good, then our best course of action is to heed its wisdom. When it comes to sugar, there is good evidence that when we overeat it consistently for a good period of time, like many of us have done for various reasons, we can set up neural pathways that may drive us to eat more. But the good news is that we can change those neural pathways, and at some point, be able to eat sugar in moderation without ill effects. For some people, the changing occurs by not eating sugar at all for a while; others may find they can eat small amounts occasionally and do okay. And there may be some who just never react well to sugar. It really is individual but well worth the effort to explore.

      • Kathleen says:

        How I appreciate your thoughtful response! Have you come across any research that is looking at what genes are responsible for sugar/alcohol addiction/allergies and all the practical science that could come from that? And I don’t just mean obesity-wise, but heart disease, peripheral artery disease, renal failure?

        Thank you again…

  • Helen says:

    Oh man, this hits home on so many levels for me. I am a person who is somewhat disconnected due to years of dieting. Ironically, I am married to someone who is quite the normal eater. I watch his eating and its ebb and flow and marvel because he does not gain weight! Plus he eats EXACTLY what he wants!

    Just this morning I was thinking, “What would happen if I left some ‘allowed’ calories behind?” Because I know for a fact that I sometimes eat when I’m not hungry because I have calories ‘left.’ I’m certainly in no danger of heading into anorexia so why don’t I do that sometimes? So dumb.

    Even though I am nowhere NEAR what you describe here but it’s is very much where I definitely, definitely want to be! I’m printing this post out because I want to really read it again and do some serious reflection.

  • E. Jane says:

    This is such a great post and I believe it is also based in fact. I am a bit older than some readers and I remember a time when people ate as you described. And…there was much less obesity than there is today. The diet industry thrives on our frustration and our beliefs that we have to eat only certain foods or omit certain foods. The names of such eating programs are many, such as Paleo, low carb, high carb, low fat, Atkids, Stillman (the one that really got me off track so many years ago), WW Points, Diet Center, etc.

    There have been times, usually when I’m traveling, that I allow myself to just eat what is available and in portions that seem normal. I always lose weight or maintain, and I am much happier and less frustrated when I do this. Maybe it’s time for me to get off the “diet bandwagon.” I’m burned out!

    Thanks for sharing this

    • Marsha says:

      You won’t hear any arguments from me for getting off the diet bandwagon, E. Jane! I think it’s past time for the diet industry to be exposed for what it really is — the weight cycling industry. Weight loss diets have created many, many more problems than they have solved. In fact, I can’t come up with anything they’ve solved.

  • I think most of us, even those people not in or around the health and fitness industry, have an intuitive understanding of what is “healthy” and what is not. A lot of people use the “I don’t know what to eat” or “I don’t know what kind of workout to do” as an excuse to do neither with any effectiveness or consistency. Truth is, we do know what is good and what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t, we just ignore it for a host of reasons. We know the crap in the packages at Wal-Mart isn’t good for us. We know the heaping mass of chemicals that come from frozen packaging isn’t good for us. We know fresh fruits and veggies are good for us. We know physical activity of any sort is good for us. We just ignore it, because it’s easier to do so and there’s no immediate liability resulting from doing so.

    I feel like a movement is beginning, though, as far as bringing the unreasonable truth to the public about health and fitness is concerned. Maybe I’m wrong, but my gut tells me I’m not.

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