Articles

The Sweet Spot

May 9, 2024

It’s back to routine…or better.

Meira Waldman on balanced, clean eating

Elisheva Braun

Kids sip from Slurpees the size of their face, gulping red-dye-and-sugar cocktails in heart-palpitating amounts.

Shmorg tables groan under towers of food: fried chicken in dripping, glistening sauces; greasy kugel; beef jerky and cholent; and, if the ba’al simchah’s feeling health conscious, a stir-fry vegetable or dressing-drenched coleslaw.

Foodieism—artisan breads and croissants, aged wines and cheeses—bloats waistlines and butchers diets.

Welcome to the 21st century, where food comes in shiny, chemical-pumped packaging and we’re left with a sickening aftertaste.

Nearly 40 percent of American adults are clinically obese; 71.6 percent are overweight (including obese). Thirty years ago, by contrast, adult obesity was at 23.3 percent. Harvard Health blames increased availability, ballooning portion sizes, and the abundance of high-calorie foods as contributors to our expanding waistlines.

But there’s another dark side of current food culture.

As portion sizes swell, clothing sizes shrink.

Manufacturers of both men’s and women’s wardrobes cut clothing smaller and smaller still. Even thin customers are wearing size large. The thicker ones? Good luck finding anything that fits.

“Disappearing” is the new size 2.

With far too much emphasis on thinness comes an uptick of eating disorders and poor body image—a fad just as terrifying as the obesity epidemic.

Anorexia has the highest case mortality rate and second-highest crude mortality rate of any mental illness. More broadly, 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder—that’s one death every 52 minutes.

And so we consume, we diet, we crash, and we pay the price. And the cycle continues.

In balance

“It’s critical that parents be tuned into their adolescents, noticing when they get too thin or start to see adverse effects of weight loss.”

From the passion in her voice, it’s clear that registered dietician Meira Waldman has seen too many tragic cases of unhealthy slim-downs.

She’s quick to balance the warning with the other side of the scale.

“At the same time, bashing of diet culture is also not healthy. While there’s a place for it—anyone, but especially women, can slide from dieting into anorexia—we’re forgetting that being overweight isn’t healthy either.”

But as Americans eat less and less healthily, the average weight keeps climbing.

“Weight and health are intertwined,” Meira explains.

It’s for this reason that she encourages cleaner eating.

“I feel like processed foods are a huge element of the obesity epidemic. If most of your diet consists of packaged food, both your health and your weight will be impacted. Nine times out of ten, clients feel better and lose weight when they switch to eating cleaner.”

For many, that might feel like a tall order in today’s food climate.

“If I would tell clients to cut out packaged foods, most would think I’m crazy. It’s too far a stretch for them. Instead, I encourage everyone to take small steps toward eating healthier, cleaner, leaner, and less processed. My first recommendation is to eat only healthy snacks.”

For Meira, balance is everything. She advises her clients that “most people should eat healthily most of the time. If you are a physically healthy person who has a healthy relationship with food, my approach is normalcy. I recommend eating healthy, with the occasional treat.”

But her conservativism comes with a caveat. “While it’s okay to be mildly overweight, obesity is never safe. If someone is prediabetic, obese, or suffering from weight-related health issues, our first goal is to get them healthy. In these situations, weight loss is often time sensitive. One or two treats can really derail that.”

There’s good news, though. Research shows that for people with unhealthy blood levels, losing any amount of weight causes significant health improvement. Meira also notices that those with medical complications are usually a lot more motivated to lose weight, so a more aggressive approach works well.

Bite-size battles

Why is it so hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle?

“Certain foods are naturally addictive,” says Meira.

She cites the book Addictocarb, which describes how carbs hook us in and keep us craving more.

“On top of that, the foods we consume today are chemically modified to make us want more. Once we reintroduce cravings, we’re on a slippery binging slope. And as frum people, Shabbos is a built-in weekly non-diet day, so we’re already likely cheating-treating once a week.”

Outside forces aren’t the only obstacles at play.

“There’s a lot of emotional and mental baggage that keeps people off the healthy track. For some, there’s a mindset block. They may see eating healthy as all or nothing, or they have negative associations with food.”

Emotional eating, body image issues, anorexia, and negative food associations are all common factors.

“Realize that a dietitian is not a therapist,” Meira cautions. “When you work to improve your eating, it’s important to also address the root cause, if necessary, with the proper professional.”

Regret plays a huge role. Staying stuck in guilt makes people spiral. That’s why it’s important that if you cheat-treat, you enjoy it and then move on. If clients want to have a donut on Chanukah, for example, they’re coached to relish the taste and then continue their healthy eating plan.

“Not everyone is able to do that. For some people, eating one donut means nonstop noshing all week long. It’s up to you. If you can’t handle a treat without spiraling, it’s better not to have it.”

Meira frames treats as splurges.

“Most people enjoy the occasional restaurant meal or fancy party dress. They can’t afford to splurge all the time. Think of treats the same way—they’re a rare indulgence, not an everyday thing.”

Well over willowy

A speaker for Atzmi, an organization dedicating to promoting positive body image among Jewish girls, once told parents, “When discussing eating and exercise with children, emphasize the distinction between healthy and unhealthy choices rather than focusing on terms like ‘fat’ and ‘skinny.’ Even if the goal is weight loss, a perspective centered on well-being is much more beneficial.”

Meira echoes the thought. “With diet and exercise changes, the goal must be improvement in diet quality and behaviors, and yes, in the vast majority of cases, these healthy behaviors cause weight loss and health improvement. It’s like investing consistently or studying for tests. It’s likely that the efforts will yield portfolio growth or great marks, but of course, there are no guarantees. We focus on what we can control, like regular exercise and cutting out the garbage, and the pounds typically come off. But results are never guaranteed.”

The hyperfocus on numbers is not only unhealthy, it’s unhelpful.

What’s the worst question a dietitian can be asked?

For Meira, the worst question a dietician can be asked is “How much weight can I expect to lose?”

“Weight loss goals are counterproductive because we can’t control how much we’ll lose.”

She explains, “Goals are a double-edged sword. Shoot too high and you’ll feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Shoot too low and you’ll stop sooner than you have to.”

Here’s an example.

Tammy weighed 190 pounds when she first met Meira. She implemented the recommended diet and lifestyle changes, and the pounds started to melt away. The progress was quick but consistent. Ten pounds came off, then 20, then 30. Tammy forged on, losing 50 pounds in total, reaching a very healthy weight, and maintaining it.

“If we had set a goal—let’s say, 30 pounds—Tammy would have stopped when she reached it. Instead, she kept going and reached a finish line neither of us could have predicted,” Meira points out.

Back to baseline

Those stubborn 17 seminary pounds.

The last five of baby weight pounds.

The yawning 30-pound gap to sheva brachos size.

Years pass, circumstances change, and yet, many of us cling to decades-old weight baselines.

“There’s a set point your body wants to be at. Then there’s the set point your head wants. It’s okay to try to get back to your baseline, but you can’t kill yourself to reach it,” Meira says.

Set points change without asking our permission—age, habits, and environment are all factors.

Mindsets, not so much.

“Pregnancy puts pressure on the pancreas, which controls blood sugar. With the body’s blood sugar mechanism out of sync, weight loss becomes very difficult. Yo-yo dieting also changes the body composition. When the dieter sheds weight, both fat and muscle are lost. When they stop dieting, they regain fat. But there’s no way to increase muscle without exercise. With elevated fat levels and reduced muscle mass, the person becomes fattier—and much less capable of losing weight.”

Healthy weight, it turns out, requires a pragmatic mindset, a balanced approach, and a willingness to dig deep for answers.

 

Blurb:

Flawed but functional

BMI (body mass index) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

Meira’s take?

“BMI is a flawed calculation, and the results are inaccurate. That being said, it’s a tool used by every medical practice, and it’s best to have a BMI that’s within the normal range: between 20 and 25; maybe a drop higher, but not more.”

 

sidebar:

Meira’s manual

Small steps to health

  • Wear health glasses. As much as possible, be mindful to serve foods that can, in theory, be grown in your backyard. Foods that require major processing should be in the minority. You can’t grow a pretzel in your backyard, for example. Even the flour we use today, which is modified to be very hardy, is a far cry from the natural wheat of the olden days.
  • Start with snacks. The switch to clean eating is daunting. Instead of overhauling everything, start by swapping your snacks for clean, healthy options. Nosh on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and cheese.
  • Keep carbs for meals. When eaten with vegetables and proteins, carbohydrates are more slowly absorbed, causing fewer sugar spikes. Eat all your macros in one meal.
  • Eat whole grains when possible.
  • Avoid diet products. Splenda and Stevia are not your best friends—they’re brimming with chemicals.
  • If you are in charge of stocking the kitchen at work, get baby carrots, chummus…—real foods, not just the packaged stuff. If you order meals to the office, get salads or grilled chicken instead of pastas.
  • Carry a water bottle wherever you go. If you have it with you, you’ll drink much more.
  • Adding just 10–15 minutes of physical activity to your day can make all the difference. Ideally, take a power walk or work out at the gym. If that isn’t possible, consider all the ways you can add movement to your daily routine. Anything is better than nothing. Here are some ideas: Take the longer route when walking somewhere; park farther from your destination. If you walk a child to day care, leave 15 minutes early and grab a power walk. Don’t ask your kids for the diaper you need from upstairs; run and get it. Better yet, run up and down the steps, then back up for the diaper.

 

sidebar:

Meira’s manual

Clean kids

  • Kids eat what parents eat. If you want your children to eat chicken, eat chicken.
  • Kids eat when parents eat. They’re more likely to eat if you eat with them, rather than serving them.
  • If you serve healthy food from a young age, your kids will eat it. Don’t think they’ll suddenly start eating whole grain when they’re 12.
  • Water, seltzer, and milk are the drinks of choice. Even without the added sugar that most juices have, juice concentrates all the sugar in fruit without any of the fiber. Kids don’t get full as they would from an apple or orange, just sugar high. Soda, of course, is super-unhealthy. The only worse offender is diet soda.
  • When the kids come home, have something healthy ready, either a snack or dinner. My kids often eat two dinners—they come home very hungry and eat dinner at five; then they eat dinner again a few hours later.
  • Let kids be kids. If everyone in their class has snack bags, they can too (though not the sugar-loaded, 400-calorie ones). I recommend focusing on healthy eating at home. At school, they can eat what their friends are having.
  • Balance, balance, balance. Resentful kids rebel. This may shock you, but in my house, we serve Coke and Sprite on Shabbos. That’s because as my kids grew, they started to feel resentful that we never had any soda, and I didn’t want them to feel deprived. For the same reason, I also bake cake for Shabbos. On Sunday, I discreetly dispose of the leftovers, so they don’t get noshed on all week.
  • Encourage physical activity: biking, running, climbing. This builds muscle, makes kids more metabolically active, and is also great for mental health.