Anyone 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.