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Sifting through diet advice

When did it become so hard to know what to eat?

Probably about the time people started advising others as to what makes for a healthful diet.

My experience thus far with trying to lose 10 pounds has opened my eyes to how unskilled I am at managing my own food intake. And I'm a nutrition writer, with direct access to the best dietary information and advice available.

I feel lucky to have the help of folks such as Brian Wansink and Pamela Peeke, both experts in making the most of your diet. They've helped me pinpoint those parts of my eating routine that are sound and those that are, in Peeke's parlance, "chaotic."

But as I write in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy column," it's not even easy to reconcile Wansink's suggestions with Peeke's ideas. Wansink, who says the best diet is one you don't know you're on, has helped me learn to make a set of small changes in my approach to diet and exercise. In the long run, he says, those small changes will add up to a more healthful lifestyle and a smaller me.

But Peeke, who has helped many women get or stay fit and trim after they turn 40, thinks I need more. She's advised I cut way back on my daily calorie intake -- without skipping meals -- and focus on building muscle as I shed pounds, making for a leaner me.

Both approaches sound great. Right now I'm trying to figure out whether both can work for me at once.

There's a bigger issue at hand, though. My personal situation is emblematic of the difficulties we all face in figuring out how to maintain a healthful diet. Whose advice should we listen to? How do we sort through all the books, magazine articles, TV shows and other sources that bombard us with diet information, much of it contradictory and much of it of dubious value? And how do we react when we learn, for instance, that eating lots of fruits and vegetables doesn't appear to reduce cancer risk after all, as a study published last week showed?

It would be so nice to be one of those rare people known as "intuitive" eaters who naturally know what's best to eat and when to eat it. I know a few: They never seem concerned over getting enough of this nutrient or that, but somehow they cobble together marvelously healthful sets of eating habits.

I never really learned (though I'm sure my parents tried to teach me) how to feed myself properly. I grew up in the 1960s and '70s, when packaged and processed foods really took hold; back then, my folks figured that stuff must be okay to eat.

Now that I'm grown, I know intellectually the difference between healthful food and junk. But it's still hard for me to use that knowledge in my daily life.

How about you? Do you struggle with sorting through advice about eating? Or do you perhaps have some, er, advice of your own to share?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 20, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Me Minus 10 , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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Dear Jennifer, Your comment: It would be so nice to be one of those rare people known as "intuitive" eaters who naturally know what's best to eat and when to eat it.
My response is- we are all born as intuitive eaters, and so you already are an intuitive eater, you just need to reconnect with your skills. Counting calories(1200/day) and carbs (150/day- sorry Dr. Peeke) is a diet, and we already know that diets do not work.

Posted by: justbstill | April 20, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

The amount of conflicting information is staggering. I've heard so many different things: "Don't eat more than 1400 calories a day" vs. "You need to eat at least 2000 calories a day for your basal metabolic rate". "Low fat, high fiber" vs. "Good fats, no grains". "Walking is the best exercise" vs. "Weight training is essential." No two doctors agree on the "best" method. Pass the chocolate.

Posted by: Welmoed | April 20, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

It's not exactly the same for everyone, but for whoever has not tried it, counting calories works exceptionally well. The free I-Phone app "Lose it" provides an easy way to count calories (both in and out), but it is just a glorified food diary which can be duplicated in other ways.

Once you become aware of the number of calories you are actually consuming and the number you are burning through exercise, you can control your intake and have a daily (or weekly) "budget". It's not an exact science, but for those who have not tried it, it is at least educational and at best likely to result in weight loss.

Posted by: mcarroll2 | April 20, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

I laughed when I read your comment about intellectual knowledge + the ability to always follow it in real life. My trainer has repeatedly hit me on my love of sugar, which is my big weakness. I exercise a lot (around 20 hours a week + most of it is very intense exercise) but I still carried extra weight around my gut + in my thighs. After reducing my sugar intake, I was holding on to my peanut M+Ms (they have protein!). I finally gave those up + lost 3 lbs in a week. I had to admit my trainer was right, but I still hold out hope that someone will find out that sugar is good for you! Good luck on your weight loss quest. I'm sure you've figured it out but you certainly are not alone in the lumpy vs lean!

Posted by: mstevens357 | April 20, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jennifer, I also agree you are an intuitive eater. I dedicate ½ of my blogging to healthier eating so you may find some fun free info there.
Kim Crawford,M.D./Anti-Aging Mind,Body,Skin Care

Posted by: doctorkim1 | April 20, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jennifer, I also agree you are an intuitive eater. I dedicate ½ of my blogging to healthier eating so you may find some fun free info there.
Kim Crawford,M.D./Anti-Aging Mind,Body,Skin Care

Posted by: doctorkim1 | April 20, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jennifer, I also agree you are an intuitive eater. I dedicate ½ of my blogging to healthier eating so you may find some fun free info there.
Kim Crawford,M.D./Anti-Aging Mind,Body,Skin Care

Posted by: doctorkim1 | April 20, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Oh I am so sorry 3 comments just appeared...oops sorry everyone;that was a computer burp!

Posted by: doctorkim1 | April 20, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

You might want to take a look at this blog about fruits and vegetable intake and cancer risk. Dr. Fuhrman has done a good job refuting the findings.

Posted by: Ovid | April 20, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

I know the idea of counting calories isn't a happy one for you because you mentioned earlier on that you didn't want to do that.

But it is an efficient way to gauge what you are taking in. Foods are tricky. Those few little nuts or small chunk of cheese can pack a big wallop.

Three pounds in two months isn't bad. Shouldn't you reach your goal in August?

Posted by: RedBird27 | April 20, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Jennifer, I can tell you are a wonderful, loving, caring person, wife and mother but you are eating WAY WAY too much food. Keeping a food diary made you feel uncomfortable because you had to actually face the fact that you are eating too much food. Why are you snacking??? Why are you eating cheese??? All of us already know what a healthful diet is - fruits, vegetables, lean protein, heathly fats and NOTHING else. When you get hungry always ask yourself "What is bothering me?". Then you need to to fix what is bothering you. Please listen to Pamela Peeke. She has got it exactly right.

Posted by: jimsandy1 | April 21, 2010 2:27 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jennifer,
I agree with you that nutrition messages are confusing. As you have experienced, there is more than one way to get it done. However, 9 times out of 10 (yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule) in order to lose weight you have to eat less and move more.

I think you may have fallen into the trap many others have -- looking for the "right" way. Counting calories may work for some, not eating out for others, avoiding excess sugar and processed foods for most of us, but there is no one "right" way. What works best for you and your unique lifestyle and habits may not work for everyone else. My advice is to find a plan, method, or philosophy that works for you today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now. Figure out what that is for YOU, and you are well on your way.

Posted by: 2eatwell | April 21, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I exercise at least an hour a day. Three times a week I have a moderately vigorous routine. When I was not fit, exercise helped to loose weight. I'm reasonably fit now, and exercise does not help to 'loose' weight. I do believe it helps to maintain a weight loose. Weighing yourself every day also helps.

I started tracking my calories on (a great tool). I managed to loose about 2 pounds in a month consuming 1400-1600 calories a day. Its very easy to slip up. I think I will need to cut back to 1300-1400 to make any more progress. I would like to loose 15 pounds. There's a secret rule that you can loose weight or build muscle. Once you've lost the weight, you can start vigorous exercise to build vO2max (the exercise will burn the extra calories your body will demand for building muscle and your body will seek your new lower weight as a norm). While you're loosing weight simply being on your feet all day long is an easy way to burn calories without ramping up gargantuan hunger hormones.

I think think the message for women over 55, is this has to be a religion. Or as Jack Lalane has stated, 'Your waistline is your lifeline'. Its a very serious battle that doesn't have to be unpleasant. If you can sift through the data and find a days worth of food that you like, you need to make that a routine. Lucky you to be so young and thinking about this. It won't get easier.

Posted by: sharonp1z | April 21, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

You asked, “When did it become so hard to know what to eat?”

Answer: when people started dieting. Whether you call it “counting calories”, “counting points” or “watching your carbs” –it’s a form of dieting. Dieting doesn’t work and studies show it predicts more weight gain. That’s why the first principle of Intuitive Eating is Reject the Diet Mentality.

No person or diet plan, is the expert of YOU. Only you know if you are hungry, full, or satisfied. Only you know which physical activities feel good. Only you, can be the expert of you.

One of the keys to Intuitive Eating is listening to what your body is telling you. But some level of stillness is needed to “hear the message”. But if you are too stressed and too connected to screens—be it television, internet or smart phone. It makes it difficult to tune-in to your body’s needs.

When you seek satisfying eating experiences and pleasurable physical activities—it feels good, which makes healthy living truly sustainable. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons that France has half the obesity rate compared to the USA.

Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD
Co-author, Intuitive Eating

Posted by: EvelynTribole-MSRD | April 24, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

I want to agree with justbstill that we are all intuitive eaters. It makes sense because we need food to eat and while we live we expend the energy that we get from our food. So what is happening in modern times? Do we lack the will-power to overcome our environment and circumstances? Or maybe the reality is we aren’t intuitive eaters any longer. We have to battle with an aggressive media culture and corporate that is constantly engineering products and media messages to target us and make us give into what we want. The reality is that those of is in developed countries have found ways to make food cheap and accessible and we have the money to buy it. We also don’t do nearly as much physical work as our ancestors did. Less than 2% of our labor force consists of farmers. Yet these farmers produce so many calories so cheaply that millions of people need to go to fitness centers every day in order to burn off their excess calories. For thousands of years the majority of society was farmers and almost everybody lived on a subsistence diet. We have come a long way in a short period! I wonder, is there a way to tap into our instincts? I like to think that is doesn’t need to be such hard work to keep a normal weight and fitness level since for so much of our history this has not been an issue.

Posted by: PublicHealthConscious | April 25, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

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