The Case Against Fitness Trackers

Lately, I've been seeing an onslaught of Fitbits and Apple watches (and when I say lately, I mean the last 3 years). I've been discussing it more with clients and friends. It's actually become a part of my regular intake questions when I'm working with someone new - do you have a device that keeps track of calories/steps? Because if so, I want to talk about it. 

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing super clear: I am not trying to shame anyone for owning one of these devices. I don't want you to feel bad if you wear a fitness tracker every day. My point is to highlight the ways diet culture and the fitness industry have tricked us all into thinking these are all something we need to have to be healthy/fit and how that's kind of bullshit

My biggest issue with fitness trackers is the most obvious: the fact that they count every single step you take and compare it to some arbitrary standard and take away your ability to judge how much movement your body needs on its own. In an ideal world, the relationship we have with exercise, like food, should be intuitive. We are all born knowing when/how to move our bodies and when we're tired. But as we get older, diet culture stifles that intuition until we're trying to track every single calorie, minute, mile and bite. And I'm not on board with that; I want people to live their authentic lives and it's tough to do that when you're trying to quantify every moment of your day. When people go for walks I want it to be because it's nice out, because they want to appreciate their surroundings or connect with nature or to improve sleep or reduce stress- there's a plethora of valid reasons why taking a walk is beneficial (if you're medically cleared for exercise) but "because my wrist is beeping at me" isn't one of them. Competing with ourselves is a slippery slope - especially if a person has eating/weight concerns. This is especially relevant to people with a history of disordered eating or compulsive exercise, but I would argue that it has a certain degree of risk for the general population as well especially in a culture that loves to make everything a competition (seriously look at any reality TV show and tell me our culture doesn't love a good competition).

Secondly- these devices have a huge margin of error. This study showed that on average, fitness tracking devices were off on their measure of energy expenditure by 27% - with some devices being off by 93%. I'm no statistician but those are not great odds. I find it alarming that people are basing their health (or at least the way they feel about their health) on numbers that are essentially meaningless. Not to mention that weight is not as simple as calories in vs calories out (a post for another day). So even if these devices were accurate, they really don't tell us much. 

"But wait!", you may be thinking, "it's not just about calories!"

That's true. It's not. They also tell you how well you're sleeping. But I gotta tell ya- I have never owned a fitness tracker and I always have a relatively good idea of how I'm sleeping based on my energy levels. They also can track your periods (apparently)! But so can a hundred other apps (and regular old calendars). They can play music! They can connect to Bluetooth and GPS! They can tell you the time! Yes, yes, and yes. But there are plenty of other ways to do these things without potentially sending yourself into a spiral of obsession and shame. Also, I don't want a piece of plastic beeping on my wrist every hour telling me that I'm not good enough. Because even if you haven't taken a single step today, you are still enough and no device can ever take that away from you.

Look. I get that new devices and technology can be exciting. I also know that the capitalism game is sneaky. I do not believe for one single solitary second that the folks at Fitbit give a damn about your health. They just want you to fork over $200 so they can line their pockets. And the thing is- these companies are really skilled at marketing their products. And they really want you to believe it's about health. But it's worth remembering that at its peak, Fitbit was worth $11 billion (with a b). And it were up to me, every single one of those dollars would be included in the diet industry. Because more than anything, these watches take away your ability to sense your own body's needs. They trap you in rules and numbers...which sounds an awful lot like diet culture to me. 

I want my clients (and society at large) to know their bodies well enough to trust their own intuition about movement. I want people to take a rest day when their body is tired. I want people to be able to go out for a spontaneous dinner with friends even if they haven't "gotten their steps in" or be able to go for a walk on the beach without worrying about how many calories they're burning. I want people to allow for flexibility when it comes to movement, which can't happen when we're trying to live up to someone (or something) else's standard. I want people to rely on internal cues rather than external validation that what they're doing is "enough". Because you are always (alwaysalwaysalways) enough. And don't let any expensive piece of plastic tell you otherwise.

P.S. Don't get me started on introducing these devices to children. I was horrified when I went on their website to do a little research for this article and saw a device recommended for children 8+. Eight and up! When I was eight years old, I had very little concept of what walking a mile looked like and I wasn't engaging in "step challenges" with my friends and I sure as hell wasn't "tracking my progress". When I was eight years old, I was running around with my friends and riding bikes and building forts and smashing rocks (my favorite childhood past time). I didn't yet have a concept of exercise as a means to control my body and I hope I can say the same for my kids one day. I'm not going to pull out the research about what focusing on weight does in pediatric populations (right now) but....yikes Fitbit. Get it together.

 

Cover photo by Ben O'Sullivan 

Not Everything You Eat Has to be a Superfood

Something I’ve been thinking about and talking about a lot with my clients recently is letting go of the idea that every single thing you put in your mouth has to have the most nutritional value. In our culture of “wellness” and “superfoods” and green juices, it’s easy to get the message that everything we put in our bodies has to have the most nutrition possible. Why have a sweetened yogurt when you could have plain instead? Why have whole milk when you could have skim? Why drink regular milk when you could have almond juice? Why have white pasta when you could have wheat?

Well…because maybe you don’t like plain yogurt. Maybe you think it tastes like sour milk and it makes your mouth cringe in a weird way (am I speaking from experience? Maybe.) Maybe you just love the way whole milk tastes in your latte (also speaking from experience). And maybe you just think whole wheat pasta tastes like damp cardboard.

And all those reasons are totally valid reasons to avoid something. As a dietitian, I don’t want to force my clients to eat whole wheat pasta when they’re going to be grimacing the whole way through. I want them to eat something that they are going to be able to fully enjoy and feel satisfied by. If you’re craving pasta and then force yourself to eat a substitute that you don’t even like in the name of “health”, then you’re going to be left physically and mentally unsatisfied.

I don’t want you to feel unsatisfied. It’s my job to make sure food is satisfying and nourishing for you.  

And if you’re thinking “but sometimes we just have to force yourselves to eat things that we don’t like!”, I get where you’re coming from but I don’t agree. I don’t think we have to force ourselves to eat anything we don’t want to eat or do anything we don’t want to do. If we use the pasta example, whole wheat pasta has more fiber and a little more protein than white pasta. If you were my client, first I would help you determine if you really needed to be concerned about protein or fiber (it’s possible you’re already getting enough). And if you do, my hope as a nutrition therapist would be to help you find other ways to increase your fiber and protein intake without it being unpleasant or deprivation-based.

It’s okay to eat things just because they taste good or because they sound good or because they’re nostalgic or because they have special meaning or because it’s what you have access to. Not everything needs to be a superfood (and while we’re at it, “superfoods” are a totally made-up concept that have no definition). We don’t always need to optimize our food choices for maximum nutrition benefit. Because health is more than food and health is more than our physical body; it includes mental, emotional, and spiritual health which can all be fed (no pun intended) when we have satisfying eating experiences.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to incorporate some gentle nutrition- in fact, that’s one of the tenets of intuitive eating (and worth noting that it’s the last one for a reason). But it can be easy to get sucked into the world of “wellness” and to obsess about ingredient lists and protein content and nutrient profiles but I urge you to take a step back from that. Take a few minutes to think about what sounds satisfying to you and listen. You can start small. You can pick one eating occasion to test it out on. Try what it would feel like to listen to your body’s cues and take time afterwards to process how your mind and body feel.

I want the people I work with to be healthy but I also want health to be looked at as a broad concept; it’s so much more than how many grams of fiber are in your meal. Ditch the labels, let go of judgment, and eat what you enjoy.

If you’re interested in an affordable introduction to the tenets intuitive eating, check out my program Finding Freedom. And if you’re not already, make sure you’re signed up for my email list to get anti-diet inspiration twice a month.

Until next time,
Meghan

 

Cover photo by Wendy Rueter 

Fat is Okay! And Other Messages I Wish I Got From Straight/Curve

Last week, I went to a screening of the film Straight/Curve that Project HEAL put on as part of eating disorder awareness week. I knew the premise and I was excited for an uplifting film about body image and diversity, but I walked away confused and angry (like, really angry). This isn’t meant to be a review of the film- I am far from a film critic-but as a Health at Every Size provider and as someone who has gone through her own recovery, I found a few things really problematic that I want to touch on here for anyone who has seen the film (or who hasn’t).

For anyone who hasn’t heard of the film, this is the description you get from a quick Google:
“A majority of women say they do not feel represented in fashion or in the media. Filmmaker Jenny McQuaile examines the industries and obstacles responsible for this body image crisis and showcases leaders who are fighting for diversity in the media.”

Hooray!! I naively thought as I walked in. Finally blowing the lid off the bullshit diet culture nonsense that media forces upon us daily. That is…not what I found. The movie starts with the director and her team discussing about a dozen women who are all outside the modeling “norm” and how diverse they are. Then they pan to the models getting out of the car….and I’m not kidding when I say I thought those where the examples of what we were moving away from. It took me a few minutes to realize those were the diverse models.  

Before I keep going, I want to say: I have respect for all these women. They are, indeed, outside the norm for modeling (they are all above a size 0/2 that we are used to seeing in models, some of them were WOC, some of them were older than the average model). A few of them shared their histories with food and without a doubt, I have compassion for all of them and their journeys. I’m excited that the modeling industry is recognizing some variety. But as far as everyday, non-model bodies go, they weren’t particularly diverse. And there was no other discussion to acknowledge that; no mention of how bodies come in a lot more shapes/sizes/colors/abilities/genders/sexualities than what those 12 or so women represented. So while I appreciate them talking about their experience in the modeling industry, I wish the conversation zoomed out to discuss the bigger picture (no pun intended).

As far as diversity goes, I was happy to see that they included women of all ages including older and middle-aged women who are so often left out of the conversation. They also represented some people of color and some size diversity. Something I would have liked to see more of was representation of folks with different abilities, who are also frequently left out of the conversation. Also, there was no representation of non-binary folks or femmes who aren’t classically feminine. The film did include one model who was part of the LGBT+ community but again, I would have loved to see more (and more diverse) stories. I had the privilege of being on the panel discussion afterwards with the creators of ThirdWheelED who both identify as queer and who were gracious enough to make that part of the discussion afterward (and I highly recommend checking out their site if you haven't already which has a lot of great resources listed). It's hard to feel good about your body when you don't see your body represented anywhere else in mainstream media (especially a movie that's about representation). 


And then there was the scene when one of the models was talking to her daughter about body image. Her daughter, who was maybe 6 or so, was saying that a girl at school had called her fat and with no hesitation, the model answered, “you’re not fat”. And I sat there wishing with everything in me that her response instead had been “it’s okay to be fat” or “who cares if you are?!”  or even just "no, you're not fat but some people are and that's okay and normal" because that’s the message that the audience (kids/adolescents/young women and their parents) need to hear. And again, I want to point out how much compassion I have for the woman who said that. I get that a mother's instinct is to protect her kid and “fat” historically has been used as an insult. And I also get that she is trying to raise her daughter to love her body in a world that teaches women to hate themselves. But there was such a perfect opportunity for a discussion about size diversity and using “fat” as a descriptor (rather than an insult) and I felt sad to watch that moment pass by.

And finally, I want to touch on one scene that has stuck with me since Thursday night, that makes me rage a little bit every time I think about it. There was a scene in which one of the models, a thin woman who I believe has recovered from an eating disorder, went to get her body composition measured (first question: why?!) and the subsequent reports showed the distribution of fat on her body (second question: why?!). The doctor detailed the different types of fat a person has on her body and then declared her particular fat as being okay. And I swear you could probably see the heat rising into my cheeks as I sat watching thinking ALL FAT IS OKAY”. Listen. I took anatomy & physiology. I know there are different kinds of fat and I understand their functions. But for a movie whose purpose was to broaden the idea of beauty and promote body diversity, “fat is only okay sometimes” feels like really questionable messaging (and also, totally against everything I stand for but that’s beside the point). The truth is that you are not wrong no matter where the fat lays on your body and more than that, you don’t have to get anyone’s permission to feel okay in your body.

I appreciate what Straight/Curve was trying to do and it was a step in the right direction. As someone who is hoping for our culture to move towards body diversity and fat acceptance with leaps and bounds, that step felt a little frustrating but I understand that’s not the way the world works (but I can dream about a world where it does, right?) There were some problematic pieces but overall, I was left wanting moreThis movie is opening some doors and it’s not enough. This movie planted seeds and we have so much work to do. I dream of the day when we can see a movie about body diversity that involves women of all sizes and shapes and abilities and genders and sexualities and ages and ALL THE THINGS. Marginalized women, we need your voices! We need your movies! And dear reader, if you have suggestions for movies like this, please leave it in the comments because I would looove to watch.

Until next time xo
Meghan

Photo by Annie Spratt 

21 People on They Wish Other People Understood About Their Eating Disorder

I am so excited to share this post with you all because there is so much knowledge and inspiration and truth here but before you get started I just want to put a trigger warning right up top. If discussion of eating disorder thoughts and/or behaviors is likely to trigger you, I recommend just skipping over this post and coming back next week. I did censor a couple number/weight/health specific things/piece together quotes from longer messages that some people sent that I note. However, to keep every response authentic, I quoted people word for word so if it sounds different than the way I write....that's because it is! And to everyone who responded and shared a part of their story, I'm so grateful for you and your willingness to put your message out there. With that all being said...enjoy! This is 21 people's responses to the question "what do you wish other people understood about your eating disorder/recovery?" And let me know if you like the format of this post- I enjoyed it a lot and hope to do more in the future.

"One thing I would want people to know/understand is that my weight is NOT an indicator of how much I'm struggling! I could be eating and be a health weight but that doesn't mean that I'm not struggling as much as/more than I was when I was underweight. Weight loss/gain is a side effect of an eating disorder, but it should not the focus to determine a person's struggles." - Lara

"It was not about wanting to be skinny!!!!" - H

" I wish people knew that offering me a low calorie food, 'healthy' food, or small portion of food is harmful to my recovery. I know many people do this out of love. They think giving me something that I have less anxiety about eating will help me. In reality, it gives me more anxiety about eating. It makes me think that I don't deserve to eat an energy dense food, an 'unhealthy' food, or a larger portion. It makes me feel embarrassed to eat in front of them and not eat what they have offered me. It makes the anxiety of eating what I want, what I crave, and what my body deserves much harder." - Helena

"That even though I look better and seem better after getting out of treatment AGAIN in November, I'm not cured. I've spent 15 years hating/destroying my body so changing my attitude to acceptance is GOING TO TAKE TIME." - @lucybaehrphoto

"That full recovery is not easy, but is possible; that everyone's recovery will look different; and that the most challenging part of recovery (sometimes) is trying to embrace your body, self, and balance in a society that is so disordered around food." - A

"That my weight and how it fluctuates doesn't mirror how my eating disorder is in practice. Sometimes at my biggest I've been the most restrictive, been in turmoil and felt physically worse then when I've been at my thinnest. I've been denied help for over 10 years because my BMI hasn't been low enough. I had all the physical symptoms and more importantly mental symptoms of an eating disorder but was denied treatment. I had XYZ medical problems (censored) and was mentally severely depressed and underweight for me. I cried out for help for all of those ten years but was denied treatment as my [BMI wasn't low enough]. I don't think I'll ever totally be ok because I was never given the right intense treatment I needed." -Madeline

"That I seemed okay when I really wasn't! And that not going inpatient doesn't mean it wasn't (isn't) real." - Em

"1. I wish I wasn't so petrified of people finding out about it. I worry people will look at me differently. Or treat me differently. 2. It feels nearly impossible to recover when we live in a world where despite what you might think and despite recent (AND AWESOME) body diversification movements the thin ideal is so deeply engrained we don't even realize it's power over us disordered or not." - Annie @_annie.18

"That people could understand it's not just about losing weight or getting super skinny (especially when someone in larger). Oh and sometimes I feel like I'm able to challenge myself and have something that would be a fear food for me and then a week later I might not feel like I can do it, but that doesn't mean I'm failing or relapsed." - Michelle

"That we didn't ask for our eating disorder! So many people think, oh they just really want attention or they caused it etc." - Bobbie

"I wish people understood you can struggle with anorexia and be at a normal weight or 'overweight.' I get invalidated so often because people say 'You never LOOKED like an anorectic. When I feel like people don't realize that eating disorders are MENTAL illnesses, they don't have a certain 'look.' If people give ME, a thin-passing white girl, shit for not looking anorectic enough (which is triggering AF) then I can't imagine how they would treat a marginalized person with anorexia." - Suzie, @suziethesurvivor

"Something I, personally, wish people understood is that eating disorders are not the result of pure vanity of stubbornnes on the part of individuals who just 'choose not to eat/over-exercise/binge, etc.' So many factors combined (genetics, personality factors, trauma, DIET CULTURE) and manifest in some of the most intelligent, loving, caring individuals you will EVER meet, but the answer isn't as easy as 'just eat more' or 'gain the weight and deal'. It goes so much deeper." - Emily M. 

"I wish people knew that binging can still be binging whether it's with almonds, cookies, or vegetables." - Molly @taco_bout_nutrition

"I wish people knew how damaging diet culture is to some people, now I have recovered in my eating people say to me 'it's okay to be healthy and go on little diets but just don't go extreme again' and this kills me as they don't know how much diet culture affected me and it's hard to get them to understand." - @yourmindisamazing

"That I didn't choose to be this way. I didn't wake up and decide that I wanted to put myself through this. I'm not doing it for attention. I'm sick physically and mentally and people need to understand that." - Lily

"I wish others knew how much eating disorders are inexplicably intertwined with people's identities, including religion and culture...I often feel underrepresented in the ED community due to religious beliefs. Last year, I was...gaining weight. This coincided with Ramadan, a month when Muslims fast from dusk to dawn. For the first time in my adult life, I did not fast- my doctor advised against it. People who are physically and/or mentally ill, as well as children, elderly, and menstruating/pregnant/nursing women are exempt from fasting. Logically, I knew I wasn't in any condition to fast for 30 days, but it was difficult engaging with relatives and peers partaking in fasting and spiritual reflection. I told very few family and friends I wasn't fasting since I felt so much shame, an emotion ED thrives off of. Like EDs, Ramadan goes far beyond food...I found other ways to 'feed' my soul." - Annonymous

"I wish people knew that my lowest weight doesn't define me. It doesn't make me more or less sick than before. The number did not then, nor does not now, dictate recovery. I also wish people knew I can still have an eating disorder and be not just a normal weight, but also weight restored." - Sarah @sarah.gets.stronger

"I wish people knew that not all eating disorders are started by body image. Some come about due to wanting to feel control, an effect of depression or circumstance, or many other things we don't even realize." - Lily

"I wish people would know that just because I am weight restored does not mean I am still not struggling. I wish my brother would realize that this isn't a choice I made and to stop getting frustrated at me when the voice is loud and I start panicking because I would love to just sit down and eat anything I want but I am still in the recovery process and I still have my bad days where I am scared and don't want to fight." - C

"That looking 'great' cause I was 'thin' was not a compliment and it always triggered me." - Michele @thesunwithin

"I wish people would forever get over it being about weight and look like models. I am mot by any means discrediting the experience of those who were weight shamed and used an eating disorder as a tool to get an ideal body or for any other purpose, but I wish people didn't assume that was the reason for my ED. I wish that people knew how problematic labels are and how they don't truly describe the experience of having an ED. They don't explain all the risk factors and experience that came together to create the perfect storm of what become the only way to cope with so much." - Jules @healing_every_day

 

Cover photo by Jake Melara