Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Double Standards

Today was a hard day for me. In the midst of my last week of classes, with finals on the horizon and several independent projects in the works, I am also planning a big Hanukkah party for my classmates to celebrate the end of fall quarter. I'd been cruising along West Coast style - sure, I'm fine, I'm cool, got it all under control - and then it hit me suddenly and I was overwhelmed and pressed for time and caught in traffic with no sleep and little appetite and no time to eat or exercise or even shower. Yes, it was one of those days when my entire meal came out of my grocery bag from Trader Joe's (what one of my instructors calls a "faux health food store"). Lunch consisted of an entire chocolate bar (fair trade ... I still have my standards) and dinner was a bag of salty rice chips with a package of dried fruit on the side. I did not eat a single vegetable. There, I said it.

Today's food intake reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago on the subject of my nutrition-student diet. As the recent blustery Seattle weather has driven me to focus more on indoor workouts, after work one evening I went to the gym and met with a membership representative to discuss my account. We made small talk and when I happened to mention that I am studying nutrition, the membership rep's ears perked up. "Are you doing the RD track?" When I told him that I was, he said he'd considered it but was discouraged by the required internship that seemed impossible to obtain (more on this later). After I completed all the paperwork he turned to me. "Can I just ask you, do you follow everything you learn? I mean, I work at a gym and I know lots of exercises that I should be doing to work different muscles and I don't do them," he said. As I looked at the chiseled body around which his fitted red polo shirt was draped I wondered what more he could possibly be doing. I proceeded to tell him a little bit about my diet: I don't eat fast food. I cook and prepare most of my own meals. I focus on fruits and vegetables. I told him for a healthy person most foods are fine in moderation. I eat what I believe to be healthful though if I have a problem area it's probably that I eat too much, at least more than I need. (Studying nutrition can lead to slightly absurd rationalizations: eg. I know that my brain needs glucose to function better so I really need to be eating chocolate while I study.)

It later occurred to me that the gym rep's question wasn't so much about my eating habits - he knew all about micronutrients, he asked me about my thoughts on whey protein (for the record, I don't use it) and whispered to me that most people can't admit that sugar is as addictive as cocaine (which reminded me of Mark Hyman's piece a month ago in The Huffington Post). He had plenty of nutrition knowledge but he wasn't a nutritionist so it was okay for him not to live by it. But what about me?

After our meeting I went to work out and mounted the elliptical machine with an old issue of JADA to catch up on but I kept coming back to his question. Why is it so hard for humans to live by the things we believe in? I remembered grappling with this while studying rationalist philosophy in college. My professor used to ask, "would you see a doctor if you knew that he/she was smoker?" What he meant was, would you trust the medical expertise of someone who doesn't adhere to the generally accepted standards for healthy behavior. During my first year graduate counseling class I remember a classmate raising a similar question: how would patients feel if they were seeing a dietician who was heavy or overweight?

Skimming through the contents of the Journal, a preliminary report on the government mandated restaurant menu labeling (as per the health care act) caught my eye. It was focusing on the ways in which nutritional information will have to be clearly displayed to the public in restaurant chains around the country. Perhaps the most interesting part of the report was the section reviewing the various studies that have been conducted over the years, most of which conclude that simply listing the number of calories or saturated fat an item contains does little in determining what people will order. The only exception was when the consumers were first educated on what they should be eating - how many calories they needed, the maximum fat to consume, etc - and were then presented with nutritional labels on menus that they seemed to consume fewer calories and make more deliberate food choices. The difference between the two situations is that in the first, the consumers have information, in the latter they have information and an understanding of what it means, what relevance it has to their lives. Maybe it's that extra level of understanding that enables us to integrate the knowledge we have into our lives and our beings.

But sometimes knowledge is not enough. At the end of the day eating is more nuanced an activity and isn't just about good and bad, healthy or unhealthy. Having studied nutrition for two years now I can tell you that beyond all the biochemical reasons to ingest vitamins and minerals and nutrients, food choices are more often based on rituals, social settings, emotions, celebrations, religions, ethics, values and other considerations that make it especially difficult to point fingers and judge. And there's a lesson in that for developing empathy, for granting the benefit of the doubt, for recognizing too that a heavier person's diet may be healthier than a thin person's, that things aren't always as they seem. That people choose to eat or not eat for a whole mess of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with health or weight or appearance. And that learning is a process of critical thinking, considering and questioning. I chose to study nutrition because I have grappled with - and continue to struggle with - these issues and I find them compelling and endlessly fascinating. If I can help others realize the complex issues surrounding their relationships to food and health and society then I will be very satisfied in my career.

If you were to meet me today you might think I'd make the worst nutritionist in the world. But tomorrow I will probably go back to my usual routine - exercising in the morning and eating a diet of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts and beans - and I can look a client in the face, someone who comes to me stressed out and tired and overwhelmed and I can empathize and feel the challenge of their situation. So eating that convenience store, low nutrient, high sugar, high salt plastic wrapped diet today might just make me a better nutritionist after all.


  1. I think about this all the time... usually while eating cookies. :) They are, for the record, homemade and chock full of good things but they have chocolate and cocaine, i mean sugar. :)

  2. A few years ago, my doctor said to me, "I'd recommend that you cut out caffeine, but I don't recommend anything I'm not willing to do myself." So, you know, there's that.

    [I tried to post this the other day, but evidently it didn't take?]